March 18, 2014-- When the concept of forming a countywide fire district — and saving $1 million — was presented to the Stuart City Commission last week, local officials were all ears. They informally endorsed the idea, and asked the Martin County Taxpayers Association to continue its efforts to analyze and lay the groundwork for combining city and county fire rescue departments.
There was a different message Tuesday from the Martin County Commission: “Not so fast.”
Richard Geisinger, president of the Taxpayers Association, made his presentation to the County Commission, and while the idea was embraced by some, the dialogue wasn’t without pushback.
“I’m enthusiastic, yes, but we need to explore this further,’ Commissioner Anne Scott said. “We need to see if we can save some money as we provide services to the residents of Martin County.”
In the wake of a contentious Stuart City Commission meeting last month — when a controversial fire assessment fee was passed — Geisinger offered his organization to study whether combining the two fire rescue departments could save money and not place a new financial burden on city taxpayers.
At the March 10 City Commission meeting, Geisinger recommended creation of a fire district, a countywide fire rescue department with its own independent board and taxing authority. Reaching $1 million in savings would involve the loss of firefighter jobs, he said.
On Tuesday, Geisinger stopped short of recommending the fire district and didn’t mention potential staffing cuts.
“I don’t want to be led down a path before fully exploring this,” Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard said. “Do we prefer one framework over another?”
A fire district is just one available way to join the fire rescue departments, County Attorney Michael Durham said. Providing contract services to Stuart, forming an interlocal agreement or creating a “dependent district” — under county government — all are options, he said, “but all have certain risk.”
“The easiest is a contract for services,” Durham said, “but there are issues of budget, issues of policy and issues of policy debate.”
The county legal staff will do its own research and return to the commission with a report in several weeks.
“It seemed a little bumpy, but we got what we wanted, and that’s a study of the methods and the numbers,” Geisinger said outside the commission chambers. “An independent taxing district is just one of the options.
“Both the city and the county have made the right decision, and that’s to go to the next level. They say they’re interested and say they want to save money, and that’s good for the taxpayers.”
Geisinger said he would offer to be part of the county review.
“I’m just glad they didn’t put it off. For the Martin County Taxpayers Association, we think we can stay engaged as an independent third party. We can mediate the process.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Martin County Commission meeting
WHEN: 9 a.m. Tuesday
WHERE: County Administrative Center, 2401 S.E. Monterey Road, Stuart
PRESENTATION: Richard Geisinger, president of the Martin County Taxpayers Association, presents an analysis of fire rescue operations and the organization’s recommendation to create a countywide fire district with Stuart Fire Rescue