County Attorney Michael Shuler on Tuesday morning laid out for county commissioners a clear choice for them to make regarding the St. James-Lanark Volunteer Fire Department:
Either work with the department’s existing board to iron out several problems with its response both to fire calls and to inquiries from the county, or start from scratch by reconstituting the department’s operations.
By a unanimous vote, the commissioners chose to start over.
By adopting a sweeping proposal prepared by Shuler, the commissioners directed that on a temporary basis, the Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) monies paid for by property owners within the Lanark fire district be spent to hire a trained firefighter to manage and operate the district’s operations.
This independent contractor position, which Shuler described as “fire coordinator,” would go to a certified firefighter, with first responder training, and he or she would be asked to create “a group of volunteers who are ready, willing and able to provide fire and rescue services through a new non-profit formed by them.”
In passing the motion made by Commissioner Bert Boldt, in whose district the fire district is located, and seconded by Jessica Ward, who represents the adjoining district, the commissioners took several other steps, including asking Lanark fire department officials to return MSBU funds they now hold in their bank account, and to inform them the county would be terminating its agreement to allow them to provide fire and rescue services.
The motion also calls for Carrabelle to convey the Lanark fire department property to the county as part of creating a new volunteer fire fighting and rescue services group for the district.
An earlier motion, also passed unanimously, formalized an inter-local agreement between the county and the Carrabelle Volunteer Fire Department which will compensate the department for fire and first responder calls within the Lanark fire district. The agreement, which runs through the end of the year but would automatically extend beyond that if neither party objects, would reimburse the Carrabelle department $160 per call, and $90 per truck per call, using MSBU monies.
‘There’s not an effective judicial remedy’
Last month, the commissioners had tasked Shuler to go to circuit court and ask a judge to issue a ruling to order the existing Lanark fire board to conduct new elections.
But the county attorney began his report Tuesday morning by informing the board that he did not believe going to court was the best option.
“I have examined litigation options available to you against the Lanark-St James Volunteer Fire Department (and since) Franklin County’s goal is an actively functioning, operational and responsive fire and rescue service provided by volunteers, I do not find that a court can enter an effective order against the current (fire department) to grant such relief,” Shuler said. “I don’t think that gets the board to what you want to accomplish.
“I do know we’re at a point where there’s not an effective judicial remedy available to the board,” he said.
The attorney said the county’s actions to address the safety and health of Lanark residents was prompted by two more recent incidents, on top of a third car fire several weeks ago, in which the department had failed to respond to dispatches from the county’s 911 operators.
County Coordinator Michael Morón told commissioners that dispatch had told them that one incident involved the Lanark department not answering when it was asked to provide support around the landing zone during an air ambulance transport, which is a typical procedure. Another involved someone who left a grill unattended, which led to a small fire put out without further incident.
“These are three instances where they failed to respond to a fire call and then they disobeyed the spirit of the MSBU, and that then gave us the authorization to begin the process we’re discussing now,” said Boldt.
“The real directive is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get past this spot and make sure fire and rescue is taken care of,” said Commissioner Ricky Jones.
“It’s our duty to make sure this is done. If somebody gets serious hurt or even dead, we got to do what we got to do and step up. It’s a big responsibility, this is serious, this is nothing to play with,” said Noah Lockley.
“I think that this is our best option at this time,” said Smokey Parrish, in making the motion to approve the Carrabelle inter-local agreement. “The prices are reasonable and I appreciate the willingness (of Carrabelle) to help us through this time.
The motion was seconded by Boldt and Lockley.
‘All that Hatfield and McCoy stuff has to stop’
Boldt said the commission should also consider, as part of the work of the fire coordinator, to develop a contract with the reconstituted Lanark board relative to the management of MSBU funds.
The absence of such a formal contract has affected how the county has responded to accusations, made a few years ago and since investigated by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office andc the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, that the Lanark department had in years past mishandled MSBU monies.
Shuler said that he has been in talks with James Putnal, who has told the county attorney he now serves the Lanark department as a temporary secretary/treasurer. Shuler has sought information regarding the MSBU funds now in the Lanark department’s account.
“He’s now working to get me that financial information,” said Shuler. “He represents that he will work with the county.”
Victoria Hart, the leader of a concerned citizens group that has over the past year pressed the county to intervene in the Lanark situation, addressed the commission, voicing overall support for the fire coordinator plan.
“The agreement with the city of Carrabelle is a temporary Band-Aid, because it’s not a real solution, “ she said. ”It’s an interim solution and by postponing this for eight months it pushes this past the election. This should be solved immediately, it’s been going on for over a year.
“Are you going to enter into a similar agreement with Alligator Point, because they’re supposedly going to help with SummerCamp and St. Teresa?” she asked.
Hart said her group has secured 65 signatures on a petition to ask The Florida State Firefighters Association if they have volunteers who are willing “to come help us out.”
Parrish, who voiced support for an MBSU contract, closed the discussion with an appeal for support of Lanark firefighters by the community.
“As they reinstitute the board, they need to be given guidance how these monies can be spent. What they do with private funds, that’s not controlled by MSBU,” he said, noting that “there are no other allegations of other fire departments (in the county) of misspending public funds.”
Parrish urged the Lanark community toi understand the benefit of having a volunteer fire department, as opposed to a full-time paid one.
“Do citizens really understand what that’s going to cost?” he said. “Your fire assessment won’t be $50 or $100. You’re going to pay and it’s not going to be cheap.
“We’re trying to move forward and you need to get behind the fire department,” Parrish said. “Get behind them, do more fundraising, have more appreciation for people volunteering their time. All that Hatfield and McCoy stuff has to stop. You need to get behind them and let them know you appreciate the service they’re providing.”