Venice: Revisiting past fire consolidation issues

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Venice: Revisiting past fire consolidation issues

From: Thomas Brener <thomasbbrener@gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, May 8, 2018 4:29:26 PM
To: John Holic; Edward Lavallee
Cc: jluce46@gmail.com; City Council
Subject: Revisiting past fire consolidation issues
Dear Mayor Holic:
I read your letter to Mr. Luce of 4/18 in which you summarize your rationale for not pursuing fire department consolidation with County. I also noticed your subsequent letter to the same recipient in which you note that city residents would most assuredly pay a fire fee if we consolidate with county.   Were it not for the fact that the city is now exploring its own EMS service, and further divorcing operations from the County, I might let this go.  But, it now seems that the City is becoming committed to expand an already top-heavy and inefficient bureaucracy.
As you write in your letter, were we to consolidate fire departments,  the county might require us to pay $2.5 million to fund the depreciation of  fire equipment. That sounds like a lot until you realize that our  fire department costs are so out of line with the county’s that the upfront costs to fund equipment depreciation would actually be covered through “savings”  in just one year.  After consolidation, In rough numbers, the County would be charging city residents a fire fee that would generate less than $5 million for this service annually.  If the City then has to repay that $2.5 million depreciation, you come up with a total cost of $7.5 for that first year.  Venice currently budgets over $9 million to fund the city fire department. Indeed, even with the depreciation,  the payback for consolidation would be positive and would pay greater dividends in each succeeding year.  How is that possible?  It’s possible because, based on your example, the county fully funds fire service for  $249.75; the City would require $900 to protect the same property.
So, what about that other pressing consolidation expense:  the county’s requirement that the city pay for “building replacement”.   This seems strange because the city has already committed itself to building a new fire house and consequently “building replacement” is not an added expense,  I see it as a wash. ( And, the county might not actually require the expense, that was never negotiated.)
What about that pesky pension shortfall?  Indeed, the city owns this beast, and the pension deficit is a problem.  But, like new fire stations, these are unavoidable expenses regardless of who runs fire services and solutions can be found.  As I understand it, the argument against consolidation with respect to the pensions, runs like this: “If we don’t consolidate, we can continue to grow our way out.  And,  If we continue to grow our fire department, the pension shortfall will start to look like a smaller piece of the pie”.  Venice currently has a payroll that is roughly equivalent to its pension costs.  That is not sustainable.  But, do we really want to grow our budget to dwarf the shortfall?  This is hardly a winning strategy.  A better solution is to pay it off out of the savings that would be realized through consolidation.
Getting back to that County EMS fee.  Your tax bill example suggests that $265.86 is the amount the county charges for EMS, and the City might well be able to perform this service and intercept those fees.  I have to ask, how much would it cost the city to perform this county service?  Will it be done with the same efficiencies that the Venice Fire Department has exhibited with respect to our fire service costs?
These take care of most of the objections to consolidation. There are, however, reasons remaining.  They are:
The county commission is “neutral” about it, they have not urged staff to move as rapidly as possible   (your point 1)
As a consequence of what the city perceived of as an exorbitant overcharge, the city council voted 7-0 to terminate consolidation talks (your point 5)
Perhaps these can best be described as a “clash of personalities”.   Sadly what has remained of past exercises in consolidation is the often repeated refrain that we “tried”  the county was “uncooperative”, we’ve “been through this before”  and “we already made our decision”.  The last is the biggest reason.  Certainly, there are strong forces that prefer things as they are, and urge that you not “look backwards” .  But isn’t it ironic that keeping things as inefficient as they are (the status quo) is “looking forward”?  We should rise above the angry recriminations of the past for the betterment of the City.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide these thoughts,
Thomas Brener  5/8/2018
What follows is your letter to Mr. Luce-
Dear Mr. Luce,
I am sorry I do not have time to respond with a complete summary of the over 18 months of consolidation negotiations and the prior over 24 months of attempting to receive fair reimbursement from the county for the use of our fire vehicles and personnel on rescue calls.
I do not think it was a clash of personalities as that is what a 7 person council and 5 person commission would preclude. If only one person from each side clashed, the majority of the remainder of representatives would have prevailed.
The major stumbling blocks included:
1.    The county commission stated they were neutral about the consolidation and did not instruct their staff to proceed with all and any  facts as rapidly as possible.
2.    The city asked to follow the format of the City of Sarasota consolidation some 20 years ago in which the county would take over the VFD as is, with the exception of the pension deficit; that deficit would remain the liability of the city.
3.    The county responded with a proposal to charge the city $4.5 million plus the cost of building replacement, The $4.5 million was alleged equipment depreciation so that the county could buy all new equipment.
4.    It was discovered at a joint meeting that the county had overestimated the depreciation of equipment by over $2 million and that, if we went along with the proposal, the cost would be reduced to $2.5 million plus the cost of buildings yet to be determined. This disclosure was made at a public meeting even though I had made the request at least 6 times as to how the county came up with the $4.5 million depreciation figure and did not receive a single answer to that question.
5.    As a result of the treatment of the city by the county (lack of support) and the exorbitant attempt to overcharge the city by more than $2 million, the City Council voted 7 – 0 in favor of terminating talks on consolidation, we felt that there were probably many other errors made and we could not take a chance with tax payers’ money.
6.    The overwhelming feedback from the citizens of Venice was for the VFD to remain independent of the county and to not consolidate.
There was a lot more to it than these 6 points, but I wanted to give you a least a partial summary.
Regards,
John Holic
Mayor, City of Venice



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