NewsPalm Beach CountyRegion N Palm Beach CountyJupiter


Errors in contract caused Jupiter to lose confidence in Palm Beach County Fire Rescue

Council members say they created new department to save money
Posted at 1:57 AM, Oct 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-18 11:25:01-04

JUPITER, Fla. — Confusion over the cost of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue's services and "discovered errors" in the previous contract led the town of Jupiter to lose confidence in the county to perform fire rescue services, according to emails received from a public records request.

Jupiter's Town Council voted to create its own fire department in August because a consultant's report estimated a savings of $68 million over an eight-year period. But, these records show additional motives other than cost savings.

The town council approved purchases worth $7.5 million for four fire trucks and ambulances on Tuesday night for its new department.

Jupiter Town Council meeting drew opponents of its own fire department. Oct. 17, 2023
A Jupiter Town Council meeting draws opponents of its own fire department, Oct. 17, 2023, in Jupiter, Fla.

Frank Kitzerow, who is the town manager for Jupiter, said it's been challenging for the town to understand how much it's expected to pay for fire and emergency services. He also said it's difficult to understand the method used to create those charges since negotiations started in 2022.

"During the negotiations, it was often the case that the town's finance director had to create worksheets and calculations based on paper copy transmissions from your team in order to properly analyze what those numbers would mean for Jupiter taxpayers," Kitzerow wrote in September 2023. "Ultimately, lack of clarity in the numbers contained in the proposals, as well as discovered errors, led to uncertainty and lack of confidence in PBCFR's ability to manage a long-term contract going forward."

According to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, the contract for its services cost Jupiter $25.8 million in 2023, which is a 22.8% increase from 2022.

WPTV contacted Palm Beach County Fire Rescue late Tuesday night to understand the reason for the largest jump in a year-to-year comparison in about a 10-year period but didn't receive a reply by publication.

A representative for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue did provide data showing call volume from Jupiter increased from about 6,000 calls in 2012 to about 8,380 calls in 2022. The agency also sent data showing if a resident had 500,000 in taxable value, the per-resident cost would drop from $1,039 in 2014 to $894.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said it charges the town of Jupiter using a formula.

According to an audit performed by the town, the formula includes about 20 different components like education, human resources, capital improvements and many other factors. The audit said the county multiplies those components, in most cases, by a certain percentage sometimes dictated by services provided to the town.

Records, which WPTV received from a public records request, also show Palm Beach County wanted to add components to the contract.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue vehicle parked outside Jupiter Town Hall, Oct. 17, 2023
A Palm Beach County Fire Rescue vehicle is parked outside Town Hall before a public meeting, Oct. 17, 2023, in Jupiter, Fla.

Those components included charging Jupiter for trucks moving into the town's service area when a unit is out of service for training purposes, an extended call for service or other issues.

It also wanted to charge the town more than $200,000 for renovations or repairs to three stations. Documents show the county also wanted the town to share costs for nonbudgeted situations and a potential new station, which concerned the town.

"Because the contract does not place a limit on items such as staffing levels, new station construction and administrative costs, we are still unsure of how costs will grow into the future," Kitzerow said to the county.

An audit, for which the town paid, said the county didn't have original documents to justify charges. It also said the original amount charged to the town was incorrect when it was provided recreated data from the county.

Wayne Posner, who lives in Jupiter, said he believes the council is making a financially responsible decision.

"That's a red flag," he said. "Something's missing and that's a red flag."

The audit also said the county didn't use standard definitions to calculate the cost meaning different amounts or outcomes could occur due to different assumptions used for calculation.

A representative for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said in an email that the town never supplied the agency with the audit report.

Documents also show the county gave the town a contract to sign in April 2023, which was incorrect because it didn't contain a requirement about staffing.

Regardless of errors, multiple council members said a consultant study showing monetary savings was the biggest motivator for creating a new department.

"There's still tremendous cost savings," Counselor Ron Delaney said in August. "I just look at this personally as an elected official, and I'm a steward of the residents of Jupiter proper taxpayer dollar. It'd be a dereliction of duty not moving forward with our own independent town of Jupiter Fire Department."

Records show the county disagreed with the town's consultant over the number used to describe the agency's proposed budget. The department has also publicly testified against the consultant's numbers.

Contract language that led to Jupiter losing confidence in Palm Beach County Fire Rescue
This is the contract language that led the town of Jupiter to lose confidence in Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.

The town of Jupiter believes the consultant used the correct numbers, according to a letter to the county. It also said if the county numbers are used, the savings would turn into $58 million.

Multiple people at Tuesday's town council meeting testified about their lack of trust in the figures the council is using as well.

Chelsea Gass, who has helped to organize opposition against an independent agency, said she believes the decision to create a fire department will cost more than the consultant estimated. She believes the council should have brought the issue to a public vote.

"You are making quick and irrational decisions," she said. "We deserve a vote."

Eric Bressler, who was at the meeting Tuesday night, also said the town should put the issue to a vote or get another opinion from another consultant about the cost. He said potential tax savings shouldn't matter in this decision.

"This isn't about numbers or $50 or $80 of somebody's taxes," Bressler said. "This is about savings lives in Jupiter, which Palm Beach Rescue does every single day."

A group of people, who have been frustrated with the process the council used to make the decision, believe they can make the issue a public vote if enough people sign a petition.

Although the town disagrees with a petition being able to stop the new department, a few speakers said the group has received about 3,500 signatures as of Tuesday night.

Editor's Note: A previous version said the town didn't use standard definitions to make charges. That has been corrected to "the county" didn't use standard definitions to make charges.