Fire-rescue dilemma

Delray Beach will have a long discussion tonight about fire-rescue service, but it may take very little time for the city commission to decide.

The commission will consider shifting service to Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue. Mayor Cary Glickstein is skeptical and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia is opposed. Commissioner Jordana Jarjura did not want to comment. Adam Frankel and Al Jacquet did not respond to emails.

The city’s finance director recommends that the commission not take any action on consolidation—if consolidation is what the commission wants—until at least October 2016. Caution is advisable because, as Glickstein says, switching is essentially “irreversible. It would be very hard to turn this back.”

As fire and police departments take up larger and larger shares of budgets in full-service cities like Delray, Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, more cities think of consolidating with the county. Wellington, which has been a city for just two decades, is the largest city (population 60,000) to use the county for law enforcement and fire-rescue. But Wellington never had its own departments. With its own population of 60,000, Delray Beach would be the largest city to give up a fire-rescue department.

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, which already serves 18 of the 38 cities in addition to the unincorporated area, is eager to add Delray. The county’s Power Point presentation promises lower costs, shorter response times and more resources. The presentation portrays the switch as simple: Delray Beach would be a new county battalion, all fire stations would stay open, and trucks would look the same.

Consultants hired by the city, however, note some potential problems. All grow from the loss of control that would arise from abolishing Delray’s department.

One potential benefit is a reduction in pension costs, since new employees could enter the state retirement system and would not be paid through Delray’s fire and police pension fund. The consultants, though, point out that those savings would depend on how many employees change, which would be out of the city’s control. Those decisions also could depend on changes the Florida Legislature might make to the state system that would make it less appealing for new hires.

Delray residents would pay for county fire-rescue service through a new property tax levied specifically for that purpose. Delray Beach’s regular tax rate then would drop. That special tax, however, depends on the county’s cost. The consultants note that if employee costs rise for the county, the cost to Delray also could rise. Again, that would be out of the city’s control, since county fire-rescue would be bargaining with the union.

The consultants did not need to point out that the county firefighters union has much political clout. In 2012, the county’s fire-rescue chief wanted to staff some ambulances with two medics instead of three, to cut overtime costs – a sensible idea that would not have compromised safety. The union protested, and the county commission rejected the idea.

“That control issue is paramount,” Glickstein said. “There must be hugely compelling reasons” for the shift, and he doesn’t see them. At the same time, Glickstein acknowledges the need for changes to make Delray’s department more efficient. Among those are staffing levels and that dreaded unfunded pension liability. Though nearly 83 percent of the department’s calls are for emergency medical services, not fires, another issue is the lack of a fire training facility. In 2009, during the worst of the recession, the city commission cut money for the training facility.

“I’m not convinced, though, that we can’t do this with the current chief (Danielle Connor),” Glickstein said. “Twenty years from now, there may be widespread consolidation.” For now, Delray Beach’s fire-rescue service looks more like cause for concern, not alarm.

The Cantor effect                                        

If you are a Republican who would like to see Florida go for the GOP candidate in 2016, you got very bad news Tuesday night from Virginia.

That news is the defeat in a Republican primary of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, who as majority leader is the second-ranking member of the House. Cantor lost to economic professor David Brat, who is aligned with the tea party and whom Cantor outspent by more than 20 to 1.

Readers of this blog may remember the recent prediction by a Washington-based Republican advocate of immigration reform that the House leadership might make a push for reform once Cantor had won his primary, and that the Florida delegation would be pivotal. Oops. Given the tea party’s opposition to immigration reform, the guess now is that Speaker John Boehner—who won his primary earlier—won’t press the issue, for fear of a challenge to his job from the right. Some analysts now say that immigration reform in the House—the Senate passed a bill last year—is dead through the next presidential election.

If true, that would make it much harder for any Republican to do well enough with Hispanic voters to win Florida, the largest swing state. A new Gallup poll showed that 62 percent of Americans favor not just immigration reform but reform that includes a path to citizenship, as the Senate bill contains. Even if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were to run and to get the nomination despite his comment that immigration is an “act of love,” his party’s stance would hurt him here. The country is not nearly as far to the right as the man who brought down Eric Cantor by accusing him of being insufficiently conservative.

Sachs appeal                   

We now know that State Sen. Maria Sachs will have a serious challenge for reelection.

Sachs’ District 34 includes Boca Raton, Delray Beach, and coastal areas from Ocean Ridge to Fort Lauderdale. In 2012, she defeated former Sen. Ellen Bogdanoff, who was the Republican incumbent but whose district had become more Democratic after new lines were drawn.

On Wednesday, Bogdanoff announced that she will challenge Sachs. Qualifying for state races begins Monday and runs through next Friday. Two Broward County residents, one as a Republican and one as an independent, also had filed paperwork to run, but neither would seem capable of beating Sachs, who won in 2012 with 53 percent.

The Republican who most pushed Bogdanoff to run is State Sen. Jack Latvala, from Clearwater. He is battling Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart for the Senate presidency in 2016-17, and Bogdanoff is a Latvala ally. The Republican caucus will hold that presidential vote after the election.

Hot topic              

Your reaction to President Obama’s proposed rules for cutting greenhouse gases might depend first on whether you believe that the planet is warming and, if so, whether human activity is the cause.

That would be a political/ideological reaction. Those of us in South Florida, however, also should wonder: How would it affect us?

The leading sources of greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—that most climate scientists believe are causing temperatures to rise dangerously high are power plants, cars and trucks. The dirtiest power plants use coal. There’s discussion over how much the proposed rules would cost, but one cost could be higher costs for electricity if generating plants must be retrofitted to use, say, natural gas instead of coal or oil. Nuclear plants emit no greenhouses gases, though they do produce radioactive waste that utilities must store on site.

Most coal-fired plants are in the Midwest. That region, and coal-mining states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, supplies most of the opposition to the new rules. Environmental Protection Agency Director Gina McCarthy says even those customers will pay much less than industry opponents claim. Whatever the real cost, South Florida residents could be in much better shape.

Florida Power & Light supplies electricity to almost all of Southeast Florida—4.7 million customers in the state combined. Over the last decade, FPL has shifted dramatically toward natural gas as a fuel source. When the last of three Southeast Florida plant upgrades is finished in 2016, more than 70 percent of FPL’s fuel will be natural gas and 23 percent will be from nuclear. Just 5 percent will be from coal, and less than one percent from oil.

FPL previously supported the idea of a straight tax on carbon, believing that the company would be affected only slightly, compared to those coal-heavy utilities in the Midwest. For FPL customers, the best guess at this point is that the rules also would fall lightly on them.

I asked an FPL spokesman for the company’s reaction to the White House proposals. He responded with a company statement that FPL is “about 35 percent cleaner in terms of (carbon dioxide) emission rate than the average utility. . .so we believe we are positioned well.” The statement, though, said FPL believes that it will take “a while” for the company’s environmental experts to review the proposals.

Even climate change skeptics might want to consider the overall health benefits. The White House estimates that the new rules could prevent roughly 100,000 asthma attacks nationwide in children and young adults. In many ways, there could be a lot for South Florida to like about cleaner air.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.