SEBRING - By a 5-0 vote, the Highlands County commissioners voted Tuesday to allow West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department to take possession of Sun N' Lake of Sebring equipment and answer calls in the north Sebring improvement district.
West Sebring VFD already operates two stations on Hammock Boulevard and near Sebring Parkway. However, Commissioner Ron Handley wanted the department to add a third station, either on Florida Hospital Heartland grounds or near the county's Valerie Boulevard EMS station. Sheriff Susan Benton has also considered adding a sheriff's substation to the new EMS complex.
"That comes with a cost," County Administrator June Fisher said. "I would not say we have the funds."
"We have $100,000 put aside," district manager Michael Wright offered.
Has the land been set aside, Commission Chair Jack Richie asked.
"We have a verbal agreement with Florida Hospital," Wright said. Assistant Chief Billy Kingston nodded in agreement.
Emergency Operations Director Tim Eures said he has met with SNL over the last three years. "We wanted to make sure citizens have a consistent level of service, that they did not have a reduction of service. This agreement takes in all those issues."
Eures said the county has merged over the years with the fire departments at Sebring Airport and Sun N' Lake of Lake Placid.
Asked why the move was necessary, district manager Michael Wright said, "The business model we had didn't work. It was manned basically by employees of other departments. They worked for us for eight hours, and then answered calls after hours as volunteers. But their first commitment was to their primary job, and some of them lived out of the county, so they didn't respond to about 40 percent of the calls."
The SNL board of supervisors voted unanimously to contract with West Sebring VFD.
Sun N' Lake resident Rex Bond, who said he managed the district for 12 or 13 years, objected.
"Sun N' Lake was organized in 1974," he said, and it had its own fire department. "All of the sudden, after 30 years, we're no good. You can find commendations for the fire department. The problem appears to me to be from the top down, and not the bottom up. And all of the sudden one morning, all the fire department equipment disappeared. It hasn't been seen since."
West Sebring was given control in mid-July.
"Someone told me (the equipment) was stored in a more secure place against vandalism," Bond said. "I don't know, but haven't heard of any vandalism in 30 years... I don't know why the hospital isn't jumping up and down," Bond said. "It has extended the response time."
Florida Hospital Heartland CEO Tim Cook was in the audience, but did not respond.
"Where is the equipment?" Commissioner Ron Handley asked. SNL is in the district he represents.
Two pieces of equipment are still at town hall, district manager Mike Wright explained. Another engine is at West Sebring VFD so that firefighters can familiarize themselves with it.
"Who eliminated (the paid fire department) and under what authority?" Bond asked. SNL was created by the county commission, and now the voters have the right to approve the fate of the fire department.
"Let the people decide," Bond asked.
However, the commissioners went along with SNL's request.
At the request of EMS Director Harvey Craven, the commissioners removed $1,319 in old, unresolved EMS billing items from accounts receivable.
The commissioners agreed to $15,000 in renovations at the animal control building. The air conditioner, drywall and flooring will be replaced. Facilities Director David Flowers said the job should take two weeks.
Fisher asked for direction about whether the commissioners would prefer to join a six or seven county consortium that includes Polk County.
There is some urgency, said Jennifer Stults, Florida Department of Transportation intermodal systems development manager, because of grants to Avon Park.
The commissioners did not discuss Southwest Florida Water Management District's dispute with Greg Harris regarding County Club Estates. Swiftmud is alleging overpumping violations.