By Angie Francalancia
Boynton Beach commissioners once again are talking about closing the city’s downtown fire station, which ran on more than half the calls in Ocean Ridge last year, to cut costs.
During budget workshops last month, Commissioner Steven Holzman said the city could almost balance its Fire Department budget by closing Station No. 1, laying off six of the firefighters who now staff it and moving the other three to Station No. 4 on Federal Highway near Woolbright Road.
The city has agreed to once again hold a workshop to discuss closing the station located on Boynton Beach Boulevard just east of City Hall. It’s tentatively scheduled to take place in October, after the new budget year begins.
If Boynton Beach laid off six firefighters at Station No. 1, it could save about $435,000 — the amount in contractual raises Boynton Beach has promised firefighters in collective bargaining agreements.
But the move could jeopardize its annual $900,000 contract with Ocean Ridge for fire service, cautioned Lori LaVerriere, Boynton’s interim city manager. While there’s nothing in the contract that specifies which station would serve Ocean Ridge residents — according to City Attorney James Cherof — LaVerriere said Ocean Ridge felt it was implied that Station No. 1 would serve them.
Ocean Ridge officials said there would be ramifications to the 12-year contract if the station were to close. Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi, who oversees the contract, said that when the contract was written in 2004 there was no anticipation of closing the station. “There is no contract that covers every contingency. You can only address the issues that are at hand,” he said.
Boynton Beach has contracts with both Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes for fire rescue service.
“We need to take Ocean Ridge out of our decision,” Holzman said at the workshop. While he vows to continue to press the issue, Holzman acknowledges he doesn’t have the support on the council to close the station now.
“I am not in favor of closing Station No. 1,” Vice Mayor Mack McCray said. “These people are paying for keeping it open. If Ocean Ridge still wants to keep that contract, I’m sure we’ll find a way to keep Station No. 1 open.”
Yannuzzi, who coordinates all public safety for the town, has said he’s concerned about response times and has collected data showing the response times for calls.
Late last year, officials from both towns had agreed to explore the possibility of housing Boynton’s Fire Station No. 1 at Ocean Ridge Town Hall. That move would have preserved the close proximity of a fire station for both Ocean Ridge and Boynton Beach’s downtown residents.
But that idea was put on hold earlier this year, Boynton Fire Chief Ray Carter said, because the city got no acceptable bids on three pieces of property it was looking to sell, which would have financed a larger police station. Boynton is discussing using Station No. 1 to expand its police headquarters. At the July budget workshop, Carter raised issues about the cost of renovating Ocean Ridge’s garage.
Ocean Ridge Town Manager Ken Schenck said he’s never seen a cost analysis.“To the best of my knowledge, nobody has looked at numbers for this,” Schenck said. “It never got that far.”
Last year, Boynton fire rescue responded to 55 percent of the Ocean Ridge calls from Station No. 1, nearly 10 percent more often than in 2010, according to data that Boynton supplied to Yannuzzi.
“Even last year during all this conversation about whether it should remain in existence, Station No. 1 became more necessary to Ocean Ridge,” Yannuzzi said. “Keep in mind that some of those calls would have been to their own beach [located in Ocean Ridge.]”
If more calls had to be answered from a station farther away, it could mean delayed service, Yannuzzi has said.
There were 246 calls in total during 2011, a number that has remained nearly constant for the last four years. The majority of the calls — 134 — were for emergency medical services.
Holzman said he believes there would be no delay in service, given that half of Ocean Ridge’s calls already come from different stations, primarily Station No. 4.
“I’m absolutely sure that by closing Station No. 1, we’d still retain enough staff to respond to all calls in Boynton Beach as well as Ocean Ridge. I believe we are overstaffed at the present time.”