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Fire departments' rapport scorched

Published Oct. 9, 2005

It is no secret that Citrus Fire Administrator Mike Petellat is not popular with most of the fire department chiefs.

In the past week, however, the chiefs have turned the heat up a notch in an ongoing effort to either change Petellat to their liking or force his removal.

In a three-and-a-half hour meeting last week, the chiefs cited problem after problem that they have had with Petellat. They say he does not keep them informed, distorts their positions before the Board of County Commissioners, and is slow to respond to their inquiries.

Additionally, they say, Petellat's shortcomings result in inefficient spending of tax dollars and unnecessary limitations in the quality of fire trucks and equipment.

Petellat, in turn, has tried to cast the dispute as firefighter unhappiness with budget constraints and the fact that his boss is the county administrator, not the chiefs.

Relations between Petellat and most of the chiefs have deteriorated to such a point that both sides freely accuse the other of lying, though sometimes they use euphemisms to describe it.

For the public, the stakes are high as the warring continues. An important public service, fire protection, is the subject of a power struggle and the receptor of $2-million in tax money and impact fees each year.

At the chiefs' meeting last week, Mike Connell, chief of the Connell Heights Volunteer Fire Department, circulated a three-page document titled "List of items Mr. Petellat has messed up."

One of the more serious allegations listed was a claim that Petellat had presented the commission with "totally inaccurate figures" on the cost of a proposed fire training facility that may be constructed over the next five years.

Connell's document said that the facility would cost about $2-million, not $650,000 as Petellat told the board.

John Russo, assistant chief of the Connell Heights department, said he had researched the matter and found that at a minimum, a fire training center would cost $1.5-million. He said he turned that information over to Petellat. He noted, however, that grants were available that could limit the county's expense for the proposed project to a fraction of that.

Petellat was not at the fire chiefs' meeting. In an interview held later he said that the fire chiefs' proposed capital improvements plan listed a spending figure nearly identical to what he had told the board. He said it was possible that as more is learned about the training center, the cost estimates would change. He added, however, that $650,000 is a realistic estimate for a facility that would meet the county's needs.

For the public, many of the disputes between Petellat and the chiefs are difficult to sort out because it comes down to a matter of who said what in conversations or meetings that have not been recorded.

For example, Petellat says he does not remember if he told more than one fire chief that he had decided about a year ago to accept the donation of a 1975 pumper truck that needed repair work as well as transportation from New York City.

The truck was widely ridiculed at the fire chiefs' meeting, with chiefs suggesting that it was in terrible shape and is a drain on tax money, and that it was outrageous for the fire administrator to be spending money without their knowledge or consent.

"I consult these guys on everything. This is ridiculous," Petellat said, but added: "It would have been a good idea to speak to them."

Repair work on the truck to date has cost about $5,000. That does not include the cost for transporting it from New York.

Connell's document said about the truck: "We have retired better equipment than this engine. . . . The county turned down a better piece of equipment (Floral City's engine) due to age, but yet the fire administrator has free rein to expend funds without the chiefs' knowledge or consent?"

Petellat said he had rejected a separate truck donation to the Floral City department, but that vehicle was eight years older than the gift he had accepted.

Additionally, he said, there were problems that needed to be fixed in the Floral City vehicle and he was not informed of its existence until the department already had accepted it.

Petellat said the New York City truck he acquired would be used as back-up vehicle when necessary.

Several chiefs also suggested that the truck had been moved around the county several times so that newspapers would not be able to photograph it.

When he was told of that allegation, Petellat bowed his head to his desk, then raised it and said, "It's fascinating to me that there are these dark and devious plots."

He said that no newspaper had previously inquired about the vehicle. The truck has been moved a couple of times, but only so that it may be painted. Petellat added that it is awaiting painting by students at Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

Connell's list of complaints against Petellat includes two problems concerning equipment and vehicle bid procedures.

Several chiefs say they have never voted to adopt a specific type of "bunker gear," that is, protective clothing to wear when fighting fires. Petellat insists he was at a meeting in which the chiefs did just that, though he acknowledges the minutes do not reflect that action.

The fire chiefs say the issue is critical, because the bid ended up being awarded for a type of gear that is incompatible with that currently used in some departments. Russo said that if a firefighter were to mix and match the clothing, a portion of his midriff could easily be burned.

Additionally, Russo said the type of gear he prefers is less expensive and the bid specifications were written in such a way that precluded that type of gear from even being considered.

Petellat, however, said that the company selling that type of gear, known as Globe Astra, did meet bid specifications, but did not offer the lowest price, so it lost out.

The other bid problem concerned buying a replacement boat for the Connell Heights department. According to the chiefs, Petellat ignored a list of items that should have been included in the specifications for the boat. Petellat, however, says Russo was in the room as the bid specifications were drafted.

The fire chiefs plan to meet again Tuesday. They said they will begin working then on a joint statement detailing their unhappiness with Petellat.