After more than 100 years of tradition and service, the Zephyrhills Fire Department soon will be no more.
Its operations are expected to be consolidated in September, into Pasco County Fire Rescue.
The Zephyrhills City Council unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Pasco County to provide fire suppression/first responder services to the municipality. The action came during an April 27 virtual council meeting.
Per the agreement, Pasco Fire Rescue would operate the city’s two fire stations and hire all 25 of the city’s fire rescue personnel at their proper pay step. The county agency would ensure and maintain additional staffing needs at both stations, and place an ambulance within the city limits.
The agreement calls for a 20-year term, with automatic 20-year renewals, unless the city or county provides written notice at least a year prior to the end of a term.
For a merger to take effect, the Pasco County Commission must approve a corresponding agreement. Also, consenting ordinances allowing the county to charge city residents an MSTU (Municipal Service Taxing Unit) for firefighter services will need to be passed at a later date.
Under the agreement:
- Zephyrhills will continue to handle plans review, fire and building code administration, and annual inspections
- Zephyrhills will provide Pasco with final approved as-built plans for any new commercial construction
- Pasco will provide a water usage report to Zephyrhills for any water used through city hydrants
- Should Pasco not utilize a city station as an operational fire station, Zephyrhills will have the first right of refusal to purchase the property back at its then assessed value
- Zephyrhills will allow Pasco Fire Rescue housed at Station 25 to use the City Hall parking lot
The agreement also gives transferred city fire rescue employees the option to remain in the Zephyrhills fire stations for six months. After that, each employee will be required to bid to stay in the local stations.
Under the terms, Zephyrhills also agrees to conduct soil remediation at the downtown fire station, if required by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Separately, the city has agreed to waive any employee tuition reimbursement requirements.
It also has agreed to pay each current Zephyrhills fire rescue union member 50% of remaining sick time above 120 hours that is being transferred to Pasco, and to award all vacation time up to 500 hours and all accrued comp time.
The agreement (as well as extended employee benefits) will cost the city roughly $5.5 million total and will generally be spread out over a period of seven years, Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe said.
After fiscal year 2027, the city won’t have to pay the county for fire rescue services — as it’d be solely propped up by an MSTU assessed to city residents and commercial entities, similar to how Dade City receives such services.
For comparison’s sake, the city’s fire department budget the last two years was $3.3 million in fiscal year 2019 and $2.8 million in fiscal year 2020 — nearly totaling the amount the city is prepared to pay the county to take fire rescue operations off its hands in perpetuity.
The fate of the local fire department had been coming for some time.
Besides a ballooning annual budget, Zephyrhills Fire Rescue battled personnel turnover, staffing shortages and outdated equipment over the years.
Also, the city hasn’t had a fire chief for over 18 months, instead splitting those duties among three battalion chiefs.
Following formal negotiations with the county that been ongoing since last July, Zephyrhills leaders now feel they have an agreement that takes care of the city’s firefighters, enhances fire rescue services for the community and minimizes the city’s costs.
Council president Ken Burgess described the merger as “a difficult, momentous, emotional day for the city.”
He added: “I think we can look at it as a positive moving forward for the city’s firefighters and everyone involved.”
Fellow council members echoed similar sentiments.
Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson said, “We really feel like we negotiated the very best possible deal for the firefighters. I don’t think any of us are happy about the fact that we’re losing what’s a 100-year tradition for our community, but the bottom-line line is that our long-term fiscal health for the city was dependent upon this merger.”
Councilman Charlie Proctor pointed out, under the merger, the city’s two firehouses finally will be at full staff and will have transport units. That’s something, he said, the city has not had for decades.
“I believe the end result was fair for everybody, and I also believe in the long run the citizens will be served more safely,” Proctor said.
Zephyrhills firefighter union president Travis Geiger, who was heavily involved In negotiations, said union membership supported the merger by a supermajority vote and is “on the same page” with the city’s consolidation plan.
“It’s been quite the journey,” Geiger said.
The entire process required “much discussion, and back and forth, and headaches and everything else,” he said.
The history of the city’s fire department dates back to 1915, when it started as a volunteer organization. Since the 1970s, it has had a paid professional staff.
To preserve a sliver of that history through the consolidation, city officials said fire engines and vehicles will have signage along the lines of “Proudly Serving Zephyrhills,” even though equipment will now be owned and operated by Pasco Fire Rescue.
Published May 06, 2020