WCIND board OKs extra funding for law enforcement agencies

The Town of Longboat Key will not be getting West Coast Inland Navigation District funding this year for its fire-rescue boat, even though the boat responds to calls beyond the island’s waterways. Photo by Norman Schimmel

As it turned out, Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson had no trouble this week getting approval from the West Coast Inland Navigation District board for a special request.

A WCIND board member, Patterson was in the minority on a 3-2 vote July 11, when the County Commission approved seeking funds for law enforcement agencies that would equal 31.7% of the county’s total WCIND grant request for Fiscal Year 2013.

The WCIND board previously had set a cap of 30% for law enforcement agency funding.

“The [WCIND] board agreed to allow Sarasota County to go up to 32%,” Patterson told The Sarasota News Leader on July 19.

The WCIND board had met the previous day. The four-member board includes commissioners from Manatee, Lee and Charlotte counties.

“Apparently, [Sarasota County is] the only group with that issue,” Patterson said of the request to exceed the 30% cap.

The other counties do not come close to that level with their funding requests, she added.

Moreover, she told the News Leader, the 30% level “is an interior rule. It’s not a state statute.”

On July 11, Chairwoman Christine Robinson had joined Patterson in the minority on the County Commission vote, expressing reservations about using approximately $530,000 in County Navigation Improvement Fund reserve money to plug a gap between what 22 organizations had requested and what the WCIND would be able to cover.

At the direction of the commission, Laird S. Wreford, the county’s coastal resources manager, cut all the law enforcement agencies’ initial requests by 9.3% across the board, to reach the 31.7% level.

Longboat town request ineligible

Patterson told the News Leader July 19 that she did not need to bring up to the WCIND board a second topic that had been discussed at the July 11 County Commission meeting. That one, involving a request for continued funding for the Town of Longboat Key’s fire-rescue boat, was made moot by the subsequent confirmation that the funding was not legal, she said.

State law allows for reimbursement of expenses for a fire-rescue boat that stays on the water, Patterson said. The Longboat vessel “isn’t really on the water all the time.”

During the July 11 discussion, Dave Bullock, the Longboat Key town manager, addressed the County Commission about the town’s request for $38,000 in FY 2013 funds from the WCIND for equipment and supplies for the boat.

Bullock explained that the fire-rescue boat is available for use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. It takes only 3 minutes from the time dispatch receives a call until the boat is in the water, he added. The vessel operates with a Coast Guard-licensed captain and paramedics who are trained in marine rescue operations, Bullock said.

When the town’s police boat is not in the water, he continued, the fire-rescue boat is used to transport law enforcement officers as well.

Additionally, Bullock pointed out, “We find ourselves called to offshore search and rescues by the Coast Guard and [other agencies] on a fairly frequent basis.”

When Bullock added that the county had included funding for the boat in its WCIND request for the four previous years, Patterson told him she had not recalled that.

“So up until this moment we have been funding it?” Patterson asked.

“Correct,” Bullock said, adding that he hoped the commission would give some consideration to continuing that funding.

He added that the Longboat fire-rescue boat “has about the fastest response time you’re going to find from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor.”

Patterson said during that meeting that she was uncertain the WCIND board would agree that the funding request was eligible for consideration under state law.

Bullock told the News Leader on July 13, “We were very disappointed in the [County Commission’s] fire-rescue [boat] decision,” especially since the commission had approved the request in the past.

“When you live on an island,” he said, “you pay a lot of attention to what goes on on the water.

Because of Longboat’s canals, he added, the island probably has thousands of homes on the water. “Public safety on the water is a big deal” on Longboat Key.

Moreover, Bullock said, the town just recently began collecting data on the people the boat’s crew assists. “A huge number of them reside in other counties,” he said. “Boater safety doesn’t pay attention to boundaries.”

On July 19, Patterson told the News Leader that if the County Commission were to seek a change in state law to allow the WCIND to fund part of the boat’s operations, then the commission also would have to seek funding for vessels used by other fire departments in the county.

That would be a fairness issue, she pointed out.

Regardless of the decision, Bullock had told the News Leader on July 13, “We’ll continue to provide the highest level of service” for the town and the rest of the county.