LEESBURG -- Lee County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday night to create a public safety department with separate fire and emergency medical service departments.
The move effectively merges the two units, allowing for crosstraining of EMS personnel as firefighters.
The Lee Public Safety Department will consist of a fire services division and the emergency medical services division. Each unit will have its own budget and rosters.
However, the ordinance allows for the creation of a new position called public safety director. Both the fire chief and the EMS director would report directly to the public safety director, which will be a department head position.
Commissioner Luke Singletary made the motion to create the department. It was seconded by Commissioner Greg Frich and supported by Chairman Rick Muggridge and Vice Chairman Dennis Roland.
Commissioner Ed Duffy voted against the ordinance. While not opposed to improved fire protection in the county, Duffy is adamantly against hiring a public safety director and reducing the roles of Fire Chief James Howell and EMS Director Bobby Watkins below department head status.
Muggridge stressed that the ordinance gives the commission the authority to create the new public service director position but does not require the commission to hire someone in that role.
There is some sentiment among commissioners to keep Howell and Watkins at department head status and hire an assistant county administrator with specific responsibility for those agencies.
Muggridge said several factors led to Tuesday night's decision.
The complexion of the commission changed in January when Commissioners Frich and Singletary joined the board. The new commission immediately placed fire service delivery on its "radar," Muggridge said.
There had been talks in past years about merging EMS and fire services to improve fire protection to residents in certain areas, particularly in north Lee County.
EMS personnel and firefighters are housed in the same buildings already and respond to the same emergencies, Muggridge said. However, the EMS staffers are not training in fighting fires.
Muggridge also noted that the Insurance Service Office (ISO) revised the way it assesses fire service delivery on July 1. The new grading system did not favor the type system Lee County currently has, Muggridge said.
"The review confirmed what many of us had assumed, knew, speculated or feared," Muggridge said. "Without dramatic changes, a significant downgrade of our ISO classifications was not just possible, it was certain."
ISO rates are a key factor in determining how much property owners pay for their insurance. Without any changes, Muggridge said he is convinced that most homeowners in the county's most populous areas would pay more for their fire coverage.
Many people in south Lee County have a fire rating of six. There are numerous residents, particularly in north Lee County, who are stuck with ISO ratings of 10, the highest and most expensive.
Further, Muggridge said failure to make improvements regarding fire service will hurt Lee County in the future in terms of recruiting new commercial taxpayers.
"In today's business climate, the cost of operation is a primary factor in where companies choose to locate and remain," he said. "What if just one business like a Waffle House or Publix chose to open in a neighboring county?
"The economic impact of losing or gaining one medium-size restaurant to the county in just 10 short years would easily be in excess of $750,000. Lee County needs commercial growth to support our infrastructure, and even more so we need to keep the commercial investments we have."
Muggridge noted that Dougherty County has one of the best ISO ratings in the country.
"If we are to compete to get businesses to locate in our county, we must do what is necessary to protect our current classification and would do well to improve it," he said. "Our ability to attract business to locate in Lee County affects every single taxpayer in Lee County."
Consultant Skip Starling, head of National Fire Services Office, has helped commissioners develop a plan to improve fire services.
Under Starling's plan, the county could construct three new substations and three additional smaller stations that will be manned by a yet-to-be-formed volunteer force. This plan, he said, would put 99 percent of Lee residents within five miles of a fire station.
Those stations could be manned with existing staffing levels, pending the training of EMS personnel to fight fires. When fully trained, ISO will consider Lee County to have at least four trained firefighters at each station.
Starling said the entire project would cost an estimated $846,000.
Starling reported to the commission Tuesday that five of the county's seven fire engines are in good condition, but that two are in need of major overhauls or being put in surplus.
George Johnson, a resident of Lee County, appeared at the commission meeting to express his opposition to the merger of the two units. Most of Johnson's concerns dealt with money to finance the new facilities and training.
Training of the EMS personnel is expected to begin within the month.