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Commission delays thorny issue of Hernando Beach fire department's future

BROOKSVILLE — Even after public records and public testimony backed up the county staff's assertion that the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department has committed serious violations of its contract with the county, the County Commission decided this week to defer discussion about ending the contract.

Instead, the commission set a public workshop on the issue for 2 p.m. Jan. 24, giving the two new commissioners and more community members additional time to explore the topic.

The emotional comments from the public Tuesday included the county's retired fire chief, Mike Nickerson, who said that the volunteer department "has been in default since its inception.'' He said that Commissioner Wayne Dukes — who lives in Hernando Beach, has long supported the volunteer department and showed strong support again Tuesday — has stopped the county from dealing with the many problems by hiding them "under the rug.''

Dukes, Nickerson said, has been so aligned with the organization that he has "lost his objectivity.''

Another adamant plea came from Chuck Greenwell, who heads the government affairs committee of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association. He urged commissioners not to "kick the can down the road'' because there already have been so many delays.

He also called out Dukes for failing to respond to offers to meet and talk about the issues with the community. Promises by officials that there was a plan to provide advanced life support services for the community were not true, Greenwell said, noting that the county has admitted in writing that it knows it is liable for not forcing the volunteer department to comply with its contract.

County staffers had recommended that the contract be terminated because volunteers failed to respond to 911 calls, failed to report who is available to respond to such calls and their qualifications, and because there are ongoing issues about financial reports and quarterly reports on response times. Audits required by the contract have not been completed, including one that is more than a year late.

Not knowing who was at the station and their qualifications was the reason the county last week started acting as first responder to emergency medical calls in Hernando Beach. When Dukes asked Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department chief David Murdock if he could start providing the county with those staffing details, Murdock said he could.

But until the Hernando Beach officials provide regular information to the county that they are staffed with emergency medical technicians, the county will continue to be first responders, according to Virginia Singer, the county's spokeswoman.

Murdock, former Hernando Beach chief David Freda (now the Brooksville fire chief), Dukes and other county officials met Monday to talk about financial records required by the contract. They agreed to get audits done in the coming months and to suggest that the workshop in January would allow everyone to get more information.

Dukes told new commissioners John Allocco and Steve Champion that they need to obtain more information about how the Hernando Beach department works before they make a decision about its future. They supported the workshop idea, but noted that the fire department issue is important. Public safety, Champion said, "is our No. 1 issue. . . . What happens if someone dies?''

"We have a tremendous liability problem,'' commission Chairman Nick Nicholson said. "The safety of our citizens is at stake.''

That was backed up by Sean Moulton, a captain at Station 1, the closest county station to Hernando Beach, and president of the firefighters union. He told commissioners that there have been times when Hernando Beach "has failed to respond completely'' to calls.

That riled Dukes, who said the comments were inappropriate. The commission had to take a break when Dukes left the commission chambers.

But the new commissioners said they wanted to hear what the public had to say, and the discussion continued. Moulton went on to question spending by the Fire Department, including large amounts for travel and fees for the administration, which made it appear the volunteers were getting paid.

Several Hernando Beach residents defended the volunteers, including Jim "Sarge" Dendy, who said the county has done nothing, despite months of discussion about putting an advanced life support engine in Hernando Beach. Bringing the equipment to the community was the top issue in a survey conducted by the property owners several months ago.

County fire chief Scott Hechler said an advanced life support truck staffed full-time would be moved there if the contract with the volunteers were terminated.

Resident Stu Sturm said that, as an auditor, he could find questions about anyone's financial dealings. He said he liked having the volunteers dedicated just to Hernando Beach.

The workshop in January will include a discussion of county funds expended to provide emergency services to both Hernando Beach and the city of Brooksville — money those communities could owe back to the county. Clerk of the Circuit Court Don Barbee told the commission that the use of those monies might not be legal and that some resolution needs to be found.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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