By DOTTY NIST
Following up on recent reports of poor living conditions and disrepair at some of the Walton County Fire Rescue (WCFR) stations, the county commission has voted to take funds from the budget to get started on renovations at the 12 stations.
Discussion continued, as well, about the possibility of transfer of WCFR oversight under the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), with more evaluation to take place on that possibility.
The discussion and action took place at the Jan. 10 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Walton County Fire Rescue serves Paxton, Freeport, and the unincorporated area north of the bay, with the exception of the Liberty and Argyle independent special fire districts. The area south of the bay is served by South Walton Fire District (SWFD). Neither the SWFD nor the two other independent special districts would be affected by the potential oversight transfer from the BCC to the WCSO.
At the Jan. 10 BCC meeting, Stan Sunday, deputy county administrator, presented an assessment of current and proposed renovations for the 12 WCFR stations at a total cost of $130, 893. Sunday told the officials that, of that amount, $57,000 was already funded for renovations to Station 1 (Paxton) and Station 12 (Freeport) in the 2016 fiscal year budget, leaving a balance of $73,893.
Among items on the list were carpet/vinyl replacement, electrical and painting work, framing, caulking, placement of siding, sheet rock and trim, plumbing, cleaning, hauling off of debris, air conditioning upgrade, deep well replacement, ceiling tile replacement, roof installation, and heater installation.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander moved to take the $73,893 from the county budget to get the renovation process started for the WCFR stations.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bob Hudson asked if the work outlined would be done in-house by the county. Sunday responded in the affirmative.
Javier Canut, a firefighter’s union representative, agreed with some of the repairs listed by Sunday but said that some needed repairs had not been included. He objected that union members had not had the opportunity to meet with the Public Safety Committee that had created the list of renovations and repairs and said that the people working in the stations would have been the best to identify these needs.
Canut spoke of numerous health problems resulting from the condition of some of the stations.
“I think we need to start somewhere…and this is a good start,” Comander said of the funding.
Sunday spoke of difficulties in arranging for everyone involved to attend the committee meeting and failures to communicate between the parties.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson suggested approval of the funding and that Sunday arrange for another committee meeting that would include all interested parties.
Comander’s motion to advance the $73,893 in funding was approved unanimously.
Later during the course of the meeting, discussion turned to a feasibility study that had been envisioned to evaluate the possibility of WCFR oversight transfer to the WCSO. A draft request for qualifications (RFQ) for a firm to conduct the study had been prepared and was presented to the commissioners.
Discussion included whether this should be an independent or an internal study, the cost of the study, and how long it would take.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones observed that if the study were to cost $100,000, that those funds would be better spent on improvements to the WCFR stations.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper suggested talking with people in Citrus and Broward counties, counties that had opted to put fire rescue under their sheriffs. Comander suggested also talking with Marion County, which had considered such a transfer but had decided not to do so.
“I think you can do a feasibility study locally,” Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson told the commissioners. He was of the opinion that the study could be done by a local committee that could be created with representation from the WCSO, the county, the firefighters’ union, citizens, and possibly the Walton County Taxpayers Association. This would provide for the study to proceed in a timely and cost-effective manner. Adkinson commented. Trips to Citrus and Broward counties would be possible, he noted.
Mark Davis, county attorney, cautioned that if this were to be a committee that would make a recommendation or recommendations to the BCC, committee meetings would be required to be noticed for public attendance and all other Sunshine Law requirements followed.
Anderson motioned to allow two weeks for Adkinson to meet with county administration, formulate and bring back a plan for the committee, including potential membership and whether this would be just a fact-finding committee or one that would be providing recommendations to the BCC. The motion was seconded and additional discussion followed.
Hudson urged the commissioners to look hard at the “dollar issue” associated with the matter. Camp Creek resident Bob Brooke spoke in favor of looking at additional options along with that of putting WCFR under the WCSO.
County resident Lynda Morse reminded the commissioners that WCFR personnel put their lives on the line to serve the public, adding that it is their desire to provide professional service to the community. She spoke in favor of the county avoiding lawsuits in order to have more funds available for purposes such as this.
In response to some of the comments, Adkinson stated that there should not be a discernable difference in cost were WCFR to operate under the WCSO versus the current status.
Anderson’s motion was approved unanimously, with Atkinson scheduled to bring his report before the commissioners at the 9 a.m. Jan. 24 BCC regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
By DOTTY NIST