Ocala, Florida — On March 5, the Marion County firefighters presented to representatives of the Board of County Commissioners a proposed contract designed to help stop the exodus of experienced first responders.
To date, the county has yet to return with an offer of its own. In fact, the county has cancelled three meetings, the latest one being on June 1.
During a May 5 meeting, the union was supposed to have a negotiations meeting, but the commission cancelled.
During that meeting, Commissioner Carl Zalak said, “Until the Union decides to come to the table and get realistic, [negotiations are] going to be tough.”
“It was disheartening to hear [that] at a county commission meeting,” Ryan O’Reilly, PR director for the Professional Firefighters of Marion County said. “It seemed as if they canceled a negotiations meeting just to publicly attack us. We were very confused by it.”
But firefighters remain hopeful that most of the commissioners are committed to correcting the longstanding issues facing Marion County Fire Rescue, including lagging response times, an aging ambulance fleet, and an exodus of experienced firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs.
The county commissioners are holding two public hearings in June: one on Monday, June 8, and the other on June 22. Both are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
The purpose of the meetings is to discuss increasing the fire assessment fee.
Currently, all households pay $165.99 annually, which only funds the fire department.
The firefighters association sent a letter to the BOCC advocating that the county raise the fee from $165.99 to $220 annually.
“It is a nominal increase that would only cost a household an additional $4.50 a month,” O’Reilly said.
A recent poll commissioned by the professional firefighters, and conducted by Triton Polling and Research, showed that 73 percent of Marion County residents would agree to raise fees for Fire and Emergency Medical Services by $5 a month.
“Now is not the time to come up with piecemeal solutions that will not address the issues at hand. Investing in your Fire and Emergency Medical Services is supported by the citizens. All it takes now is the will to act,” President of the Professional Firefighters of Marion County, Jay Boardman, wrote. He added, “While this may not fully fix the long-standing issues within MCFR, it will certainly go a long way to correcting many of these issues.”
In the meantime, the firefighters have started a petition and created a website describing the issues facing the community, located at www.FundFIreRescue.com.
Firefighters are hoping the website will help raise community awareness.
“It is critical for the citizens to know what is happening,” O’Reilly said. He went on to say, “If the commissioners choose not to adequately fund fire and emergency medicine in Marion County they need to be honest with the citizens about how they will have to decrease the level of service.”
“There is only so long that a department can be in deficit spending before it collapses,” O’Reilly said.
Firefighters say that fixing these issues now is becoming increasingly critical due to a statewide retirement boom coming to a head this time next year.
“Last year we lost 60 employees. Deputy Chief Paul Nevels told you that we have nearly lost 60 employees in the first 6 months of this year. And, if you think this is bad, wait until the state wide retirement boom coming this time next year. Our members will be able to write their own ticket to any department in the state of Florida,” Boardman stated to the commissioners.
Since pay freezes came nearly 5 years ago, MCFR has lost around 220 first responders. Boardman explained that these employees had combined over 1,100 years of experience, costing the taxpayers over $44 million in wages alone and nearly $3 million in replacement cost.
Boardman further added that all of this money was spent to grow these employees into highly skilled and trained first responders, only for them to leave to serve other communities. Now MCFR cannot even replace the paramedics who leave.
“The question is no longer, ‘How can we afford to keep our first responders,’ but rather, ‘how can we afford to lose them?’” Boardman stated.
So far in just over a week, the firefighters have been able to get over 2,200 people to sign their petition.