Gerry Estes has lived near the unincorporated community of Hague in Alachua County for 18 years. Being “out in the country,” as Estes, 84, puts it, the closest fire station to her home is about five miles away in the city of Alachua.
She has never had to call for emergency medical or fire services, but said it would be good to have a station closer if something does happen.
“I think all of us need to have a fire station,” Estes said while shopping at the Dollar General store on U.S. Route 441 at County Road 237. “It’s a long ways from Alachua.”
Alachua County Fire Rescue wants to build a station in Hague on Route 441 near Phoenix Commercial Park. Fire Chief Bill Northcutt said the county is finalizing an agreement with the owner of the property, an old battery plant, and that the county commission will vote on it soon.
Walter Cason is president of the Turkey Creek Master Owners Association, which manages a community of about 1,100 homes near the proposed station. He said residents are aware that a station could be built and that the reaction has been positive.
“I think they’ll support it,” Cason said. “Clearly, here in Turkey Creek … they will support it.”
The potential station was one reason the county moved to cancel its 30-year-old services agreement with Gainesville Fire Rescue, Northcutt said.
In May 2017, the county rescue notified the city that it wanted to end the agreement in order to save the $1.8 million a year it was paying the city rescue to respond to emergency calls in nearby unincorporated areas. Under that agreement, both rescues handled calls based on proximity, regardless of jurisdiction, with each organization charged by the other for its service.
Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Lane said when the agreement was canceled, the city was responding to 30 percent of the county’s calls, or 3,086 units outside of its jurisdiction. Lane said the county was responding to only 9 percent of the city’s calls, sending 2,128 units into the city.
Northcutt said the savings could be used to build two fire stations outside city limits.
“It was a way for the county to add resources into the system,” he said. “I think it was a wise decision to cancel [the agreement].”
The county’s decision to cancel the agreement surprised and distressed the city, Lane said.
“We were concerned that what was happening is budget decisions being made, not a service decision,” he said.
In any case, the county rescue began working toward building two fire stations, one on Millhopper Road and the one in Hague. The commission voted to hire staff and put a fire engine in service for the Hague location in late 2017, Northcutt said.
In February, however, the commission voted against the Millhopper Road location. It did so after dozens of residents showed up at a commission meeting to voice concerns, including that the road is a historic, scenic route that should not be disrupted.
“That threw it all through an interesting twist,” Northcutt said.
With the agreement expiration approaching in May, the county began focusing on the Hague location and turned to its city counterpart for a solution, he said.
Harold Theus, the county fire rescue’s deputy chief, said county and city officials had been working toward a new agreement for several months. Theus said both sides went back and forth, with Gainesville wanting to stop sending its ambulances or fire trucks into unincorporated areas.
The city preferred to have its units available to respond to calls in its jurisdiction, he said.
Lane said the county wanted the city to respond to calls outside its area for free. He noted that the county could not both pay the city to respond to unincorporated areas and erect fire stations.
“I think that’s where we had a disconnect,” Lane said.
Both parties wouldn’t budge. So when the old agreement expired May 30, each rescue would only respond to calls within its respective jurisdiction. That lasted two weeks until a deal was struck on June 13. It called for dispatchers to send the closest unit, regardless of jurisdiction, for emergency situations such as a heart attack, stroke or house fire, only. The new deal is in place through Sept. 30, 2019, with both sides agreeing to pay the other $821 for each unit responding out of jurisdiction.
Lane credited the county with reducing how many times the city must respond to its calls.
“It’s less than ideal, but most compromises are,” he said.
Since it went into effect, Lane said, the city has seen the number of times it has sent units into the unincorporated areas cut by half. Theus confirmed the data, saying the city was going out of its jurisdiction about seven times a day, but now only goes out twice.
The county now expects to pay the city about $1.4 million for its service this year, Northcutt said. For the next fiscal year, he said it expects to pay less than $1 million.
Meanwhile, the county rescue wants to relocate one of its fire stations within Gainesville to an unincorporated area, Northcutt said. The station at Southwest 20th Avenue and Southwest 43rd Street would be moved onto Southwest 24th Avenue just west of Haile Plantation, he said.
The county is still working on purchasing the property, which has been delayed due to a foreclosure, said Northcutt, who added that no final decision has been made.
Pending a finalized purchasing agreement and commission approval, Northcutt said he hopes that the Hague station would be built and operational by December.
Dell Sanders, a part owner of JD Sanders RV, said he was unaware a station might be built near his business, a mile south of the commercial park. Sanders said he does not think it would have any effect on his or other nearby businesses, and that residents would respond positively.
“I don’t see any downside to having a station close by,” he said.