The lights will stay on at the Cross Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
Alachua County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to give the station the $39,268 it requested to keep the doors open.
The funds boost the station’s budget for the year to $94,268 — the same annual budget as the one for the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department, a station Cross Creek chief Bill Jones said is comparable to his.
The Cross Creek Volunteer Fire Department, which was established in 1981, started experiencing a budgetary crisis in the fall — a situation made worse by a lack of volunteers.
According to Jones, at one point the station was down to one man: him. And earlier this month, with a staff now at 17, there was talks of even closing down the station.
With a $55,000 budget, Jones has had to balance between hiring staff and maintaining the station and its equipment. This challenge, he said, was impossible to overcome.
“Anybody here [who] thinks they can run a fire station at the present $55,000 a year is highly dreaming because I’ve tried it,” Jones told commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve done everything I could. We cannot do it. We need help to stay open.”
Bill Northcutt — chief of Alachua County Fire Rescue, which oversees the Cross Creek station — said the original model of the station was all volunteers with one full-time staffer.
But that changed when the volunteers and staff member left.
“Right now, we have 17 people on the roster” who are being paid through the old budget, Jones said, “but I cannot keep these people if I don’t have the money to pay them.”
Barbara Elliott, board president for the Cross Creek Volunteer Fire Department, told commissioners that the station now has “adequate personnel, but [the Insurance Service Office, which rates fire departments for insurance purposes] also requires current equipment, gear and training.”
“If there is a favorable vote on this contract increase,” she said, “this almost $40,000 will enable us to meet ISO requirements.”
Having a close-by station in Cross Creek is important because two of the oldest populations in Alachua County reside in the station’s coverage area, which also includes Lochloosa and Island Grove, Tish Kilpatrick, a Cross Creek resident, told commissioners.
Kilpatrick pointed out that the communities covered by the station also have the smallest average household size in the county. This means that there are many elderly people living alone or with just one other person, she said.
Kathryn Cammack, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho’s (R-Gainesville) deputy chief of staff, said the congressman supports the station.
“Our office is committed to finding potential grants and federal funding programs that will help resolve this funding issue” in the long term, Cammack said. “Cross Creek is a very special and unique community that we are committed to serving.”
The vote was supposed to occur at the commission’s Feb. 21 meeting, but after representatives from Cross Creek showed a presentation on how dire the station’s situation is, County Manager Lee Niblock suggested the commission vote on the matter immediately.
“I don’t think the citizens from Cross Creek should have to wait until next Tuesday,” Niblock said. “There’s certainly no resistance on the part of staff to supporting their request.”
The $39,268 will be given to the station starting April 1, according to a motion put forward Tuesday by Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, who spent time working with the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department.
“As we’ve heard, volunteer fire departments are the core of a lot of communities in terms of their civic engagement,” he said.
Jennifer Tozzo, a fire instructor who is now training firefighters at Cross Creek and other small departments in the county, praised the Cross Creek station.
“The Cross Creek individuals here have worked harder than I have seen in my 30-something years of any department trying to save a department,” Tozzo told the commission. “This group of people right here deserve a lot of credit. They work countless hours behind the scenes and give up their vacations and time to their city.”