Hendry moves toward forging new setup for public safety in 2019

LaBELLE — The Hendry County Board of Commissioners unanimously accepted an improvised plan recommended Dec. 11 by County Administrator Jennifer Davis and Emergency Medical Services/Fire Chief Adrian Damms to patch together a fifth Basic Life Support (BLS) ambulance and crew for the county.

It sparked a wide-ranging discussion that’s high-priority in the minds of many officials and citizens alike in Hendry County. It might become the dominating issue for the whole new year of 2019. Commissioner Mike Swindle used the occasion to raise the wider topic of how to enhance public safety overall in the county, broaching the possibility that Hendry move toward establishing a separate source of financing for police, fire and EMS protection.

He said that “as a Republican, I do not like taxes, new taxes, spending money, collecting money,” but he believes now is the time for the county to deal with its inability to keep the EMS and volunteer fire departments staffed and equipped at full strength by establishing a separate per-home and per-business tax — what’s called a Municipal Services Benefit or Taxing Unit.

“We’re having to do this because we don’t have EMTs. They come, they learn, they train, they get certified; they leave. It’s reached a pinnacle to where we don’t have enough ambulatory teams and personnel to cover what needs to be covered within Hendry County.” Mr. Swindle suggested “adding a per-dwelling fee of some type, some size — hopefully small so it’s not such a crunch — strictly for EMT, sheriff’s department and volunteer fire department salaries, and a piece of it could be used for certification training and to make us a little more competitive to the east, west and south so that we can recruit, train and retain that talent that we have.”

Saying he didn’t want to “get into the weeds,” he asked if the board could direct staff to do some research and “bring us back some legitimate options for us to … mull over, with numbers associated with it and then what that process would look like.” He said he knew it would not be easy and take a long time. “We need to get back with our constituents and make sure that it’s the correct thing to do,” too, he added.

Commissioners Darrell Harris and Karson Turner both voiced support, and although Mr. Harris said “Doesn’t matter what you do, it’d be a tax increase,” Chairman Mitchell Wills injected that he, too, thought it was time to talk about the possibilities. “I believe constituents want more public safety, it’s pretty evident they want it, but we’re going to have to create that. Once they see that they get better police, better ambulance, better fire protection I think they’d rather pay that now than have a life lost rather than pay $20 or $30 more in taxes.

“I believe this is a really good conversation and it’s one of the reasons I’m actually sitting here. I want to see Hendry move forward and get to the place it needs to be rather than always be behind the eight ball. I believe this is going to be a healthy conversation and I believe the public will be receptive to taking better care of them,” Mr. Wills stated.

County Administrator Davis said, “We will bring back options, and we’ll look at what some other counties do and … do our research and come back with specifics.”

Mr. Turner suggested that “the second part of that discussion needs to be our county administrator sitting down with the sheriff and his staff, and the other staff that’s under her directly, and saying, ‘OK, we’ve got to be completely transparent with our budget to know exactly what those numbers are, what we can potentially pull out and put over here into the MSB or MSTU pot.’ This is going to be specifically generated for those arenas, and then this is going to stay whole as it always has been from a millage perspective of just underwriting your budget … I think they can be a partner in this rather than there be … an adversarial discussion.”

He said he wanted to drill in a little closer as to what this means. Ms. Davis explained: “We have funded a total of five ambulances, but right now we’re only able to have four up and running because it requires one EMT and one paramedic per ambulance. Because we have a shortage of paramedics, we’re not able to keep that fifth unit up and going. But this is going to allow two EMTs to staff that fifth unit and so we’ll have a total of five.”

She noted that Fire Chief Damms was present to answer questions. “He brought the schedule, ready to go ahead and man it tomorrow with your approval tonight … part of this request is to get your permission to go ahead and advertise to hire additional EMTs. They’re easier to hire than paramedics,” Ms. Davis said.

There were plenty of additional questions for Chief Damms, though — mostly about training programs and educational incentives the county is able to offer local high school students and graduates.

Commissioner Turner capped off the initial discussion with compliments. “Great discussion, Comissioner Swindle. I think everybody’s on board with it, I think you’re spot on in pointing out that this is a different method … and, Ms. Davis, thank you so much for not only looking into this but implementing it.”

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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