Editorial: Public safety should never be political (or political theatre)

A Special Series, Part II

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This article is the second in a series focusing on public safety, specifically fire-rescue as now wholly exists under the authority of the Board of County Commissioners. As a recap and as depicted in the lead article, we learned the Board opted out of an interlocal agreement with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office. It had been in effect for six (6) years. As of October 1, 2017 or for the past three months, the responsibility and commensurate accountability and all it entails, rests directly with the Board for what is now referenced as Fire and Rescue—and all IT entails. The Board at the behest of Commissioner Scott Carnahan wanted “…more transparency”. In turn there will be more scrutiny. To say we hope our elected officials are ‘up to the challenge’ rings hollow as this phraseology more aptly applies to competitive sports. For an ever-aging population, emergency fire rescue is not a sporting proposition.  This new BOCC direction should be viewed as no less than what it is—a life or death decision going forward.  For better or worse this current Board now owns it.  Inasmuch as the Board moved to resume such control, Fire Rescue should have been a priority item in their workshop at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park on December 12. 2017.  It wasn’t. After the break, there was but a passing reference to fire as a glaring example where they thought there could be “efficiencies”. Caution: drilling down to bring information heretofore glossed over causes jumping from time to time.  

There is a significant question lingering from the BOCC meeting of November 28, 2017:  why was an audit costing the taxpayers some $18,000 necessary?  All monies as existing in the CCSO, budget whether law enforcement or fire related, were already taxpayer money. This glossed over point was referenced by Chair Ron Kitchen. An additional question: if ending the agreement (merger) was done for righteous reasons, why was it adversarial toward the Sheriff? Nothing suggests CCSO/Fire wasn’t performing as expected. To reiterate; the Board authorized the expenditure of taxpayer funds to a private accountant to track money and/or capital equipment already taxpayer owned. This could have gone toward the Fire Rescue budget. One follow-up question: don’t we have personnel within county government who can be trusted to sort the budget and/or equipment and if not—why not?  This should be a routine inventory task.  In the best one-word quote of Chairman Kitchen: “Troubling”.  What follows is a quick historical summary advising how we’ve arrived in the here and now.    

According to a review of the Board meeting video of December 7, 2010, we can discern the fire taxing district is a dependent special district established by voter referendum some 25 years before (approximately 1985). It was a different era. This measure was voter-approved because of the need to fund the safety of persons and property. Back then there were satellites of hodge-podge fire services throughout the county identifying with the nearby communities they served. There was little to no uniformity. The millage rate was set at just less than 50% of what they could have: .4566. I promise not to overwhelm you with minutia but it’s necessary to have a general understanding of past practice to grasp the authority provided to our elected officials by ‘we the people’. It sets the stage for future practice. Many properties (then and now) are at low taxable value—this before exemptions are applied. After exemptions, many are below zero. Although fire rescue service is measured along with the other costs of county services, by ordinance a millage cap of up to 1.0 is set for fire. We are well below.

This short recap serves to illustrate elected officials in the ‘80s capped taxpayer fire money at 4.1 million in 2010 dollars. We can expect this conservative approach allowed other responsibilities to be met while setting a foundation for the future. Thereafter, the response to calls for fire service remained primarily a volunteer task and was more or less effective for many years. How effective would be difficult to judge this many decades later. Perhaps some Citrus residents who are still around may recall some incidents shedding light. We invite their input.  

Although there was the usual budget mechanism to include an annual review, there wasn’t a serious consideration for improved service until 2010. This is when then-Chief Larry Morabito was informing the Board of the growing risk during a presentation of ‘the five-year strategic plan’. The Chief was ahead of his time. This would ultimately morph into an interlocal agreement with the CCSO.  Now under the auspice of ‘transparency’ the bold agreement established to guide the evolving improvement since 2011—has been terminated. Smart? Time will tell.

It does beg another difficult question: does the BOCC distrust their own Citrus Sheriff to the point findings of an outside accounting firm, doing an unnecessary audit are unacceptable?  Save for the comments of one commissioner leading the charge of negative inference, it would seem not. Ms. Angela Vick had already summarized audit findings as an opportunity to review and move forward strengthening management controls advising: “…I can state without question there is no criminal activity or fraud”. Commissioner Jeff Kinnard during discussion, although having focused on his own concerns, was measured in his overall response. He clearly heard Kitchen and Vick. He would liken his perceived deficiencies as “…water under the bridge”; nonetheless Carnahan seemed to be stuck.   

As a chorus of one, the redundant Carnahan considered the audit incomplete indicating ‘the accounting firm wasn’t allowed access to the law enforcement portal’. Anyone should be hard pressed to think a Sheriff’s Office would be in favor of an outside accounting firm, hired by another entity to review only fire expenditures (and not vetted by them), be allowed access to separate and protected data. This is all the more complex knowing CCSO already has a firm responsible for producing an annual report. Engaging dueling firms, setting up predictable administrative conflict, is not what our leaders should be doing. Clearly Prendergast responded to the mandate the fire fund and expenditures be available for review.  The Chair would later advise “….he wanted everyone to be clear; when we talk about the sheriff and we talk about the BOCC, it’s all taxpayer money”. Having been exposed to his share of audits, he brought it home with comparisons and analogies. Although Commissioner Kitchen had his own observations for the record, he was prepared to move on. A cross-sectional sorting committee from within, even now, would be a good option.  They could explain the best professional application of equipment and expenditure.

During his last comments our Commissioner Carnahan would further advise:”…it isn’t water under the bridge [for him]”. In fact, he reiterated those same words no less than seven (7) times.  The two reps from the accounting firm who were doing their best to deflect, advised expenditures were allocable [as could be expected]. Nonetheless, as accountants are inclined to do, they were looking for specifics—the absence of some gave rise to observations in their report.  At the meeting, they were advising in their best cautious language, their entries along with some Sheriff’s Office responses—although not the norm were not unusual.  They seemed taken aback by the fervor on the dais. My experience tells me the accountants were on the clock having to produce a report by a time certain; they met the deadline. In a closing comment, Clerk of the Court Vick, advised: “[the] Sheriff has given back historically the excess fees for law enforcement and fire services”.  Unless this is just political theatre, the time has come for this Board to build a ‘budget bridge’ for the expected flood of increasing rescue service requests. The coming growth of the county should be considered before the fact not after.

Digressing again back to the BOCC meeting of May 9, 2017, wherein the previous article conveyed an advanced disposition to ‘take backfire and put it where it belongs’, a few questions linger. If then Chief Goodworth was going to be delegated the task of briefing the Board, why wasn’t he pre-briefed as to specific budget expectations?  Did the Chief know the interlocal agreement (merger) hung in the balance? Wasn’t Sheriff Prendergast quick with his already prepared speech thanking Goodworth for his service?  Said another way; Prendergast didn’t react surprised, nor did he hesitate to put this extreme public safety development immediately behind.  Interestingly, lost in the din of BOCC inquiry regarding expenditures, the Chief was doing his best to highlight the millage rate through the years:  2012-13= .8014; 2013-14= .7315; 2014-15= .6926; 2015-16= .5768; 2016-17= .5645.   There has been a definite decreasing millage pattern.  This would have been considered a positive development by previous elected officials who creatively made this happen. The time has come to fully implement a robust Fire Rescue service. Issues needing to be addressed are: firefighter safety, overall response time from call reception to patient stability to transport as necessary. Survival rates and quality of life can be affected. This can has been kicked down the road long enough.  We will examine this and other related issues in future installments.     

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