GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Rescue Unit 19 will move back to Orange Park Fire Station 19 after a unanimous vote at Tuesday’s meeting of the Clay County Board of County Commissioners.
After presentations from the county’s department heads that lasted over an hour, several comments from residents of Orange Park, as well as elected officials and town staff, the commission agreed that returning the rescue unit to its original home would be in the best interest of everyone involved, at least for now.
“I think that moving 19 would be a show of good faith,” said Commissioner Mike Cella before the vote was taken.
Members of the audience, which was packed with Orange Park residents, clapped and celebrated at the announcement after seeing the rescue unit immediately moved out of the town’s fire station following a BCC decision two weeks ago. The only public attendee at the March 27 was Orange Park Town Manager Sarah Campbell.
Now, the town will continue with its certificate of need process – which will allow the town to have its own ambulance – once the language is approved by ordinance at the next BCC meeting. If they are awarded the certificate, the town will begin planning, alongside the county, for its own independently-operated ambulance that would return Rescue 19 to the county and operate alongside the county’s rescue units to provide first response to county residents as well as those living within the town.
Commissioner Diane Hutchings led the discussion, noting that she had received phone calls from people within her district – which includes Orange Park – who were in great fear following the county’s decision to remove Rescue 19 from Station 19. Hutchings assured the audience that the county had not taken away their ambulance, and that they would still see a qualified paramedic or EMT show up at their door if they had an emergency. She said this wasn’t about removing access to emergency response.
“The town and the county are working together at many levels, when these kind of big decisions are being made we have to work together and we have to work through them,” Hutchings said. “But you have always and you still have and you will have an ambulance if you have a call, and you’re going to hear later that your wait times are not getting longer.”
County staff presented its case during the meeting, utilizing department heads to present their cases from a legal, financial and public safety perspective.
County Fire Chief Loren Mock was the first to present, citing response times before and after Rescue Unit 19 was moved from Station 19 to the temporary home at Moosehaven. He said, based on the limited data he had, average initial response times had gone down from just over six minutes to about five minutes, but noted that these numbers might not represent any actual change in response times since the change of location is still recent.
“I think it’s a little too early to make great observations in the long-term on that, but I’m optimistic,” Mock said.
Following the presentation, Commission Chair Gavin Rollins asked Mock if he was saying that response times have improved since moving the ambulance. Mock confirmed this, but again noted that these kinds of numbers are more accurate when compared over a longer period.
“I am always cautious about response times because one or two events can throw that scale off drastically,” Mock said. “Looking in the narrow window we have so far, that appears to be the case.”
Following Mock’s report, County Attorney Courtney Grimm reviewed any changes to the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity that would appear on the next agenda and advised the board of their legal position. Commissioners, who had just received the revised COPCN language, agreed to read it and have further discussion on the language at the next meeting before voting to approve the ordinance.
The last report from county staff came from County Auditor Mike Price who said the county has been overfunding the Town of Orange Park for years as they are not paying their 5 percent tax share of the total area county.
According to the numbers Price presented, Orange Park receives about $92 million in services each year and, after removing ad valorem dollars, would put their 5 percent share at around $4.9 million, which Price said they only pay $2.78 million for. He said that leaves residents of unincorporated Clay County paying for about 43.75 percent of that bill.
“I think that there’s a lot of things that the county provides to the Town of Orange Park that the Town of Orange Park takes for granted, because they’ve always been there,” Price said.
Price said that if the town were awarded their COPCN, the county would have to spend about $1 million for the extra ambulance that would be turned back over to the county who would then have to staff and house the ambulance somewhere other than Station 19.
Following the county’s presentations, residents of Orange Park spoke in favor of moving Rescue 19 back to Station 19 for now and allowing the town to move forward with their COPCN. That testimony was continued by Orange Park Mayor Scott Land, and council members Connie Thomas and Alan Watt, who further pushed forward on the suggestions from members of the public.
“Put Rescue 19 back in Station 19,” Watt said. “Let’s live with the status quo while we work through this.”
Campbell spoke last before discussion was turned back over to the commission.
“I appreciate the expertise of your staff and the lengths that they went through,” Campbell said. “If my staff had an hour and a half they would present you with equally compelling data.”
Campbell then talked about the fact that, though Price presented that the town doesn’t pay its fair share, not all the services provided by the county in the town limits are utilized by only people who live within the Orange Park town limits, and also noted that everyone pays the same millage rate.
Campbell received some contention from Commissioner Gayward Hendry who asked Campbell if she thought Price’s numbers were incorrect.
“I didn’t get to examine them closely tonight. In the past, there have been errors as far as the cost allocation for each of the departments is usually about 18-21 percent but when it came to the BCC it was at 85 percent,” Campbell said. “It appeared to me that had been fixed in tonight’s numbers, but I hadn’t done the comparison to the budget yet.”
Hendry also understood that the town would not support any service calls outside the town limit and asked Campbell to clarify the town’s position on this.
“We still have an automated aid agreement, we intend to support you,” Campbell said. “If you want to support us, that’s great, if you want to change that agreement we’ll have that discussion with you, but our intention is not to change that agreement.”
Hendry responded, still unsure of Campbell’s position.
“I don’t understand anything you just told me, you wanna try it again?” Hendry said.
Campbell said she wasn’t sure how she could clarify it any further, offering that the town would pay for the new ambulance and that the county would see even more first response coverage with Rescue 19 returning to the county’s control.
After over two hours of testimony from both sides, the conversation came back to the commissioners, who, led by Hutchings, pushed to move Rescue 19 back to Station 19 and hear language for the COPCN ordinance at their next meeting.