Lawmaker pushes merging Dade's city fire services

A state representative is challenging counties to save money by consolidating municipal fire departments.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

BY CHARLES RABIN

Published Monday, June 4, 2007

State Rep. Julio Robaina has a plan that he says would save local taxpayers $50 million a year and turn Miami-Dade County's six fire departments into a single, lean, efficient unit.

Under Robaina's plan, if the fire departments agreed to consolidate, they would be exempt from budget cuts mandated by the property tax reform that lawmakers have pledged to deliver this month.

Under Robaina's plan, if the fire departments agreed to consolidate, they would be exempt from budget cuts mandated by the property tax reform that lawmakers have pledged to deliver this month.

Merging the fire departments -- Hialeah, Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Miami and Miami-Dade -- would allow for reassigning several chiefs and deputy chiefs, for eliminating stations that overlap service areas and for uniting six emergency radio systems into one, Robaina said.

But selling the plan, which the state lawmaker plans to unveil today, means navigating a political minefield.

For the plan to take hold, Robaina must weave through well-paid lobbyists while convincing the cities to give up control over their own departments. And then there are the firefighters' unions, which would have to accept demotions for several chiefs and deputies.

Not even Metro-Dade Fire Union leaders, who helped create the blueprint for the plan and would stand to gain new members and new influence under it, are willing to back Robaina's initiative publicly -- yet.

''He asked us to do this a few weeks ago, and we provided him with the information,'' said Metro-Dade Fire Union Chief Stan Hills.

Robaina said he intends to offer his consolidation plan statewide. All counties that agree to absorb their municipal fire departments into a single department would be exempt from cutting fire services as part of the property tax reform effort that resumes June 12. He said 

A plan by state Rep. Julio Robaina would merge six fire departments -- Hialeah, Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Miami and Miami-Dade.

Merger details

Here's how a plan to consolidate the municipal fire departments in Miami-Dade County would work:

 The 3,200 firefighters in Hialeah, Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Miami and Miami-Dade would become one department overseen by one union. Estimated savings: $8 million to $12 million.

 Their six radio systems would become one. Estimated savings: $7 million.

 Where there is overlap, close some units and reduce the number of trucks. Estimated savings: $35 million.

he intends to offer the plan as an amendment to any property tax reform bill that's voted on in Tallahassee.

The plan is bound to face opposition in Miami-Dade's municipal governments.

Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina -- no relation to the state lawmaker -- called it ``pandering to the fire union in Dade County.''

A study last summer showed Hialeah would save $2.8 million the first year it merged with Miami-Dade, but Mayor Robaina determined the savings weren't enough to dismantle the department, which costs more than $25 million a year to run. He predicted that in the long run, Hialeah taxpayers would have to pay more if they joined the Special Taxing District that currently funds Miami-Dade's Fire Rescue Department at about $400 million a year.

''Economically, they don't have a handle on it,'' he said.

Nonetheless, retired Hialeah Firefighters Union Chief Luis Espinosa said the city's department could stand to cut some costs to provide service and improve staffing. Hills, the county union chief, said that done correctly, creating a single fire department would be seamless. Nobody would notice the difference except for the firefighters.''

Coral Gables Fire Chief Rick Cook disagreed.

''I definitely think there is going to be a huge impact on public service,'' Cook said. ``But I don't think a regionalized fire department is something I see coming out of this.''

Carlos Gimenez, a county commissioner who was the fire chief and then manager of the city of Miami, said some facets of consolidation -- like a single radio frequency and eliminating redundancy issues -- are viable. But he doesn't believe there's a lot of support for consolidation.

''Some cities just want to have control of a department. What at least this does is it puts some things on the table and creates a framework,'' he said.


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