PART2: A New Beginning or the Beginning of the End
WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION?
A 5-Part Series
2: A New Beginning or the Beginning of the End
Within three months of Howard Brown’s appointment as the new Village of Indiantown’s manager, the mission and vision statements had been rewritten, goals rearranged (he said there were too many, so previous goals got listed as “strategies”) and operating the government went from $1 million, then to $2 million, and now, after two years with Brown at the helm, the budget portion just for operating Indiantown’s government is projected at $4 million for 2021.
Building Indiantown’s government and building Brown’s self-described “turn-around city manager” reputation took precedence over initial citizen aspirations.
Taxes have been raised only once. That likely cannot remain the case for much longer with government growth at this pace – but now, more than higher village taxes are at stake.
The village council’s most recent decision could mean the difference between life or death to some village residents and could negatively impact the tax base for Martin County, as well as Indiantown.
COUNCIL TO END FIRE-EMS CONTRACT
Brown and a fire services consultant – hand-picked by Brown – convinced council members at a special meeting Feb. 27 that the village should end its expensive $5.3 million or so annual contract with Martin County for fire and EMS services and opt for a hybrid trained/volunteer fire department plus an outside private ambulance firm instead.
The council-appointed citizen committee tasked with reviewing fire department proposals – which included incorporation leader Scott Watson, owner of the Indiantown Marina, and two residents of the 55+ golf community of Indianwood, Myrtle Greene and Craig Bauzenberger – was disbanded a few weeks prior to the special meeting.
(Councilman Anthony Dowling, who chaired the committee, said the committee was no longer needed, since the village did not receive proposals from its March 3, 2019, posted request sent to fire service vendors. It was the second village committee to which Watson, an advocate of the government-light philosophy, had been appointed by the council prior to Brown’s arrival in Indiantown to be disbanded by the council after Brown arrived.)
Citizens did not see the cost projection for the hybrid fire/EMS combination in advance of the council’s vote; however, they were revealed to the public during the council’s Feb. 27 special meeting.
The consultant’s numbers show the hybrid fire-EMS combo will cost the village either the same amount of money villagers are currently paying for Martin County’s fire/EMS service, or more – with less service.
The consultant predicted that the annual cost of the hybrid arrangement will be $4.8 million. He did not include the cost of dispatch, of back-up services in emergencies, or other essentials such as certifications.
He also under-reported the additional cost of the TPP grant to FPL by $289,000 annually that Indiantown must pay, as well as underestimating other start-up costs to the village, including new building construction.
The consultant’s numbers simply do not support his claim that the village will save $1 million annually with the hybrid service.
FAILURE TO NEGOTIATE DEBUNKED
In addition, Brown and the consultant both failed to report to the council that more than a year ago – almost to the day – the county offered to roll back its ambulance fees of $300,000, plus another $200,000 in cost savings, totaling a probable $500,000 in savings for Indiantown, with commission approval.
Brown agreed to postpone Indiantown’s pursuit of fire service vendors in preference to the county’s concession, according to County Administrator Taryn Kryzda. Two days later, Brown sent the fire services RFP (Request for Proposal) to the City of Stuart and others anyway, as directed by the village council, Brown said.
“He lied to us,” Kryzda said. “He lied to all of us.”
The county’s concession to Indiantown would have brought this year’s cost for Martin County fire/EMS service to $4.8 million, but, unlike the hybrid option at the identical cost, the county’s service includes emergency back-up, dispatch services, certifications, plus other essentials, as well as payment of the TPP grant to FPL to reduce its taxes on equipment stored at Indiantown.
Brown and his consultant, Mike Iacona of CPSM (City/County Public Safety Management), never revealed any of that information to the council.
In fact, they both reported to the council multiple times over the previous year that the county refused to negotiate, backing Indiantown into a corner, although both attended the same nearly two-hour meeting Feb. 28, 2020, with then-Fire Chief Bill Schobel, fire/EMS Administrator Matt Resch, and Kryzda when the negotiated concession was settled among them.
MAYOR DEMANDS RESPONSE
Kryzda was unaware that Brown and Iacona also had lied to the village council until she received a letter dated March 3 from Village Mayor Janet Hernandez admonishing the county administrator for refusing to negotiate with their village manager over the past year.
Hernandez wrote that the county administrator’s refusal had forced Indiantown to end their fire-EMS services contract with Martin County in order to reduce the tax burden on Indiantown taxpayers, which would allow the council to redirect those savings into increased services to residents and businesses.
Hernandez called her letter “one last attempt to reach out to negotiate a more equitable pricing arrangement,” and although the village’s decision will take some time to implement, she added, expecting to launch by Oct. 1, 2022 or 2023, the village “must make major capital investments in the near future, crossing the point of no return.”
The Indiantown mayor demanded an answer from the county by April 14.
“I’m not sure how to respond to this,” said Kryzda in a recent phone interview. “It’s going to have to be the commission’s decision on how to move forward.”
The next county commission meeting is Tuesday, April 13, which likely will include an item on their agenda to discuss the county’s fire-EMS services contract with Indiantown.
IMPACT TO RESIDENTS
Surveys of Indiantown residents show they are overwhelmingly pleased with Martin County’s fire-EMS service, and appreciate not being vulnerable if illness or an accident strikes home while emergency services are tending a wreck.
Iacona himself told the council that Indiantown already has “the best” in fire-EMS services, but it’s expensive. The hybrid service they’re considering will not reach that same level of service, Iacona warned, but villagers will likely find they’re “comfortable” with a lower level of service over time.
If they’re not comfortable, however, the village cannot go back.
The village also must consider whether or not FPL would be comfortable with less service. The utility, with its specialized requirements, could decide to move its warehouse full of expensive, taxable equipment to Collier County, as it threatened a few years ago when Martin County increased its taxes by more than a $1 million annually.
According to the Martin County Taxpayers Association, of the total $5.3 million fire MSTU (Municipal Services Taxing Unit for fire-EMS services), which was levied in the village last year, Indiantown residents themselves paid $231,665 – less than 5% of the total MSTU.
Roughly $4.7 million of that total was paid by FPL – nearly 87%.
Should the village’s largest taxpayer become uncomfortable with a change in fire service capabilities and relocate their warehouse, the impact on tax revenues will not be limited to just Indiantown.
The impact will be felt in Martin County, as well.
INDIANTOWN IS NOT AVERAGE
According to Martin County Fire Chief Chad Cianciulli, Indiantown’s rural fire station cannot be compared equitably to the average $3.6 million cost of an urban substation, all of which lie in close proximity to other county fire stations,
In addition, Indiantown must stand ready and be trained for any type of industrial accident, not just at FPL, but at other current industrial sites and additional ones coming soon to the rural village.
Iacona contends that hybrid services work, and points to Jupiter Island’s hybrid service that cross-trains its police officers as EMT-firefighters. It’s true that Jupiter Island’s arrangement is successful, but there are major differences between Indiantown and Jupiter Island.
The Town of Jupiter Island’s population is less than the Indianwood development alone; it has no industrial sites; its homes are largely fitted with fire suppression sprinklers; and the town gets immediate back-up from two fire stations less than four miles away in Hobe Sound.
Cianciulli also met with Brown twice in March to explain the costs associated with the Indiantown fire station, and to discuss further the $500,000 savings for Indiantown offered by the county administrator. At the second meeting, the fire chief intended to answer questions as to why a reduction to Indiantown’s MSTU is illegal, which Brown insists is the only viable solution, but to no avail.
“I appreciated that Mr. Brown was willing to meet with me, but he just wasn’t interested in what I had to say,” Cianciulli said. “He acted like (the village’s decision to start its own fire service) was already a done deal.”
The only advantages of the proposed hybrid volunteer fire-EMS combination seems to go to Brown, not the village, who needs to build a list of real-world government experiences to attract prospective clients for his private government consulting business, and to Iacona, who has positioned himself as the logical choice for a $200,000 or so extension of his contract to coordinate the new hybrid arrangement.
What happens to Indiantown in the aftermath of the council’s decision holds no apparent concern to either Brown or Iacona.
— Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Watch for PART 3: Cracks Show in Brown’s Indiantown Pedestal in Currents’ 5-Part Series, WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION? on Wednesday, March 31: