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Martin County Taxpayers Association: Fire-rescue merger still a good idea

July 15, 2016

By Richard Geisinger
fire truckRecently the city of Stuart voted not to proceed with the fire-rescue merger discussions with Martin County. For years the Martin County Taxpayers Association has pushed for a merger between the city and the county. The reason for the push: taxpayer savings.

In 2014, MCTA made the prediction there would be more than $1 million in savings immediately if the two departments merged, and this savings would only increase over time. Since then, a consultant was hired and the merger study began. As the information began to unfold, it became clear the savings would be much greater than $1 million.
As with any study, the devil is in the details. When the consultants plugged in average property assessments for fire-rescue service, they used the same average for the city and the county. Unfortunately, this is not reality. They also used an incorrect number for the costs currently associated with the city of Stuart's fire-rescue department.
However, the greatest void in the study was the lack of salary and benefit package comparisons between the two departments. In the past few years the city of Stuart has trimmed its operations and developed a more efficient model of operations. Additionally, the city realized that nearly 50 percent of the incorporated properties were not paying into the system because of low assessments. This realization caused the passage of a fire assessment tax that would require all properties to pay into the department.

According to the studies we have reviewed, firefighter/paramedics are paid significantly more in the county than in the city. This is an important difference, and it contributes to the imbalance between the departments.
It would have been helpful if the study would have considered these differences and made recommendations to balance these salaries and benefits. Additionally, the study should have used real numbers for the average property assessments. If that would have been taken into consideration, the discussions about the merger might have continued. Instead, the study simply concentrated on closing stations, sometimes without enough thought to response times.

The Martin County Taxpayers Association continues to believe the merger could produce huge savings if done properly. However, to accomplish that, the consultant must review the discrepancies that are discussed above.
Real assessment numbers and salary/benefit discussions have got to be included in the study. Additionally, management and operations must be a part of the discussions. It is not about simply closing stations.
Interestingly, nearly 80 percent of all calls into fire/rescue are medically related. This statistic alone should cause a paradigm shift in the manner the departments operate.
The Martin County Taxpayers Association believes there are considerable savings that could occur without a reduction of the level of service if the departments were merged in a logical professional manner.
Finally, the city of Stuart and Martin County must begin to develop a better, more trusting environment between each other. There will never be any mutually beneficial projects to consider if there is no trust. And, ultimately, these additional costs will be paid by all of the taxpayers.

Richard Geisinger is communications chair for the Martin County Taxpayers Association.