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Alachua County Handles Fire Rescue Budget Request Amid Coronavirus Emergency

Alachua County on Thursday made changes to its second amendment to an emergency order on local coronavirus measures, allowing more people into certain businesses.

Specifically, it affects non-medical and non-residential businesses by allowing occupancy space from one person per 1,000 square feet to one person per 750 square feet.

In short, more people are now allowed into places like grocery stores.

In addition, the amendment clarifies what essential businesses and activities are, and prohibits any gatherings of 10 or more people in common areas of any multiple resident facility.

Alachua County Commissioners gathered around their webcams Tuesday and held their fourth virtual meeting to discuss further coronavirus measures and additional funding needed for emergency responders.

The meeting, which lasted five hours, focused on Alachua County Fire Rescue’s revised financial plan and a request to increase the funding for the radio management system used by first responders.

Alachua County Fire Chief Harold Theus presented a five-year financial plan for the fire department. The potential 10% increase in funding for the 2021 fiscal year would go to managing rescue unit availability as well as increasing medical directors’ contracts, expanding the department's cadet program and maintaining radio frequency ID and security systems.

The board agreed that the 10% budget increase was not feasible amid the pandemic and suggested that the fire rescue department reevaluate and present again at a later date.

Theus also presented the need for an increase of funding from $640,000 to $1,940,000 to improve the county’s radio management system for first responders.

This issue has been publicly discussed since 2015. In 2018, a study by Virginia-based Federal Engineering was presented to the county which found that Alachua County’s current radio system has coverage gaps and would not be able to adapt to the growing city.

According to Tuesday’s meeting agenda, “the funding options are to borrow the funds against the sales tax or pursue an increase of one-half cent to the existing one-half cent to the infrastructure surtax for one year to pay for the entire capital system upgrade.”

The idea for pursuing a one-half cent tax increase was first proposed in October 2018 when Alachua County first responders requested $6.8 million to expand its current radio system, which was implemented in 1999.

Following that 2018 meeting, the radio system was given a system update by GRUCom, who operates the local emergency radio system, until the county came up with a final funding option.

Theus expressed the importance of upgrading the system for the safety of law enforcement and first responders, even though it would take between 24 to 36 months to be completed.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, it’s incredibly important for officers and public safety individuals to access their radios on their hip when away from their vehicles,” Theus said.

An upgrade to the current system would ensure that officers and public safety officials continue to have reliable connection and communication in times of emergency.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson was in favor of upgrading the system, and the board unanimously agreed to adopt the ordinance in two weeks and push it to the state level.

“At a time like this, it would be worth the investment,” Hutchinson said.

About 200 people watched on Facebook Live as Alachua County Health Department Administrator Paul Myers gave a presentation updating residents and the commissioners on the number of COVID-19 cases in the county.

Myers noted that the virus was “a novel pathogen that we learn about seemingly on a daily basis,” and stressed the county’s focus on the S.T.E.P.S initiative to keep residents safe.

The S.T.E.P.S initiative prioritizes stopping the spread of the virus, increasing testing, protecting the elderly, promoting social distancing and creating strategies to help hospitals brace for the impact of any potential rise in cases.

With about 40% of ICU beds in Alachua County hospitals available for any new cases, Myers was optimistic about the hospital capacity for Alachua County residents.

When Hutchinson asked about the needs of healthcare workers, Myers stressed that the supply of proper protective equipment such as gowns and N95 masks is dwindling.

“Though we’re running out of PPE," Myers said, "so is the rest of the world, honestly.”

Hutchinson also asked Myers about the general public’s need to wear masks in public.

“From what I have seen so far, while masks may not harm individuals, it may provide a false sense of security,” Myers said. “I’m not so sure that wearing a mask that isn’t an N95 would contribute to stopping the spread.”

Kristen is a web editor and reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing kaltus@ufl.edu. Follow her on social media @kristenaltus.
Cayela is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.