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Petition gets enough signatures to put Jupiter Fire Department on ballot

Town attorney recommends not putting issue to vote for 2024 or 2025
Posted at 1:01 AM, Nov 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-22 01:01:11-05

JUPITER, Fla. — The Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections certified enough signatures on a petition, which would trigger a vote on creating a new fire and EMS service for the town of Jupiter.

The letter, which WPTV received from a public records request, was sent to the town on Friday. It comes after a Political Action Committee called "Jupiter Residents to KEEP Palm Beach County Firefighters" and The Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County organized against the town's decision to create a new department in August.

As of now, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue currently serves Jupiter for a price determined by a complicated formula. The estimated start date for the proposed Jupiter Fire Department is 2026.

Three council members made the decision to create their own fire department after a consultant said the town would save 68 Million Dollars over eight years in August. Records, which WPTV received from a public records request, also show the town lost confidence in the department to execute a contract after an audit found errors and confusion over the cost of the department during negotiations.

A representative for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said in October the town never supplied the agency with the audit report. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Administrator Chief Patrick Kennedy also said in September to WPTV that he believes the town's financial figures are incorrect.

WPTV reached out to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue about the potential vote Tuesday night. A spokesperson for the department said it believes the department is "uniquely suited" to provide the best services based on their experience working in Jupiter in an email received on Wednesday.

"It would be and always has been our desire to continue providing all-hazards fire rescue services to this long-served community," said Tom Reyes, a public information officer for the department. "...We appreciate all of the support from the citizens.”

The petition process started after a number of people signed an online petition, which criticized
the town council for not making more people aware of their decision to create a fire rescue department and asked for a public vote.

Chelsea Gass, who organized the online petition, said the union helped organize their online petition into a formal petition.

Lisa Veerland, who is against creating a town-owned and operated fire department, spoke about giving the residents an opportunity to decide while urging the council to put the referendum language on the ballot for March 2024.

"We want to make the decision on our fire-rescue provider, plain and simple," Veerland said. "...The resident should decide what is in our best interest.

A spokesperson for the Supervisor of Elections for Palm Beach County said municipalities, like Jupiter, would have to submit language by December 15 to get on the March 2024 ballot.

Town Attorney Thomas Baird thought the ballot language was misleading at Tuesday night's council meeting. He also said he wouldn't recommend putting the issue on the ballot for March 2024 or March 2025.

Karen Vinson, who is against the town of Jupiter creating their own fire department, said she is frustrated with the process the council used to make their decision because it wasn't transparent. She said the council would be stalling if it didn't act to put it on the ballot for March 2024.

"If there is a hold-up," Vinson said. "Then it will be the town council not requesting this to be done immediately."

Jupiter's Town Council gets to make the decision, but a spokesperson for the town said the initiative is under legal review by the Town Attorney.

Thomas Baird, who is the town attorney, said he thought the ballot language was misleading at Tuesday night's council meeting. He also said he wouldn't recommend putting the issue on the ballot for March 2024 or March 2025.

WPTV's Ethan Stein asked Baird for an interview, but he declined saying "no comment".

According to a copy of the petition, the question would allow voters to stop the town from creating or operating a fire rescue department unless the town held another referendum.

Councilor Cameron May, who is also in leadership for the firefighters union, made a motion to put the referendum on the ballot for March 2024. But, the motion failed.

May said he is just trying to listen to his constituents who speak and email him about the issue. But, there are also people in favor of the town's decision.

Wayne Posner, who supports creating the town's own fire rescue department, said he came to Tuesday's council meeting after recently leaving the hospital. He said he wanted to show its support because he believes the firefighter's union is using its power to fight the council.

"I just got to applaud the bravery of our council to protect our citizens and be very conservative with what we spend our money on and how we control our money and our taxes," Posner said. "I can't thank you enough."

Regardless of when a vote occurs and the result, the town of Jupiter is currently working to build its own fire department. It has created a logo, spent millions of dollars to purchase vehicles and is starting to accept applications for a Fire Chief.