Orange Park, FL

Orange Park committee takes first step to investigate hiring more firefighters

Julie Morgan

The Town of Orange Park Budget & Finance Committee met Monday to hear presentations from the fire and police departments about the budget for the 2022/2023 fiscal year.

The main concern for the fire department was attaining the number of firefighters needed to meet industry standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. In addition, they also discussed how to increase salaries to attract and retain firefighters.

Chief John Contestabile said the NFPA has a standard of a four-person unit on the engine. However, the Orange Park fire department has been working with less than that. “Over the past year, I think we’ve averaged about 2 ½ persons on that engine, so we’re below the recommendations,” said Contestabile.

To meet standards, the OPFD would need to hire six new firefighters or two per shift. The department currently has a total of 20 personnel.

Contestabile said he recently lost two firefighters. “The two that I lost to the county, obviously was due to salary increase that they got, and then it’s kind of hard to compete with those larger agencies.”

In addition to paying the firefighters, the town would need to factor in the money needed to outfit the fire department to handle the increase in personnel. The updates to the fire station will cost $100,000.

The town manager explained how much it would cost to hire the new firefighters over the next five years and add to the firehouse to accommodate them. The first year is $515,000. “That does include some station modifications because we’d need additional bunkrooms to accommodate them, so it does drop down in years two through five by a little bit,” said Sarah Campbell.

Councilman Alan Watt observed that to accommodate more personnel financially and make the building updates would require a one mill increase.

“We’ve already set our tax rate, so we can’t raise taxes, so we just need to see if there’s some other way to do it,” said Mayor Randy Anderson.

Anderson commented that there’s a possibility that the council would not be able to move forward on this for the upcoming fiscal year, but he wanted “staff to bring real numbers to make some hard decisions.”

The committee voted unanimously to have the staff work on the numbers and go from there.

One option mentioned by committee members is to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to make proper adjustments to the fire station before hiring new firefighters. However, the council will need to decide whether to approve this option because ARPA funds have an expiration date.

As for pay, that falls in the hands of the union. However, the fire chief mentioned that compared to surrounding areas, the town is at the bottom.

Committee member S. Winnette Sandlin expressed “concern” that before more firefighters are hired, pay needs to be reconciled. “We already have a retention problem. How, if we have a retention problem, can we add staff to be compliant with how we need to be? We also have to pay appropriately.”

The next Budget & Finance Committee meeting is Wednesday, August 24 at 6 p.m.

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