The era of Jacksonville Beach having its own fire department moved closer to ending on Friday when the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee unanimously supported Jacksonville's fire department taking over in Jacksonville Beach.

The proposed agreement previously won backing from the Jacksonville Beach City Council in a hotly-contested 4-3 vote during a standing-room-only meeting in May.

The full Jacksonville City Council will vote Tuesday on the merger. Based on the 7-0 vote by the council's Finance Committee, the interlocal agreement has backing from Jacksonville City Hall, though with some caution lights about the long-range cost of providing fire service to the beach city.

Jacksonville City Council member Ron Salem said having city of Jacksonville firefighters stationed in Jacksonville Beach fits the intent of the blueprint for consolidated city-county government in Duval County.

"This is one of those things that should have been done in 1968, in my opinion," Salem said. "Fire services should never have been separated out. It all should have been under one umbrella."

City Council member Randy DeFoor questioned why the city of Jacksonville's cost of providing service to Jacksonville Beach would be millions of dollars more than what Jacksonville Beach pays to get it.

"I have to say I'm struggling with this," DeFoor said.

According to the City Council Auditor's office, Jacksonville Beach will pay $2.2 million in the first year of the 20-year agreement. That payment would go up annually by 2.5 percent or the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is greater.

Jacksonville Beach officials have said that over a 10-year period, they expect to save $15 million compared to what they would pay for Jacksonville Beach having its own fire department.

The prospect of better service with cost savings carried the day for the Jacksonville Beach City Council when it approved the agreement. At that time, Mayor Charlie Latham opposed the agreement, saying the merger would be "taking the first step in dismantling our city."

On the city of Jacksonville's side of the ledger, its estimated first-year cost for providing service to Jacksonville Beach would be about $3.57 million, or roughly $1.37 million more than what it would get from Jacksonville Beach. If that gap persists, then over a 10-year period, the city of Jacksonville's cost of providing the service would be roughly $13.5 million more than Jacksonville Beach pays.

Joey Grieve, chief financial officer for the city of Jacksonville, said the city of Jacksonville's cost over the coming years will be affected by expenses such as salaries and fuel. The city's cost would not be capped.

"It could go up," he said of the gap between the city's expense and Jacksonville Beach's payment. "It could go down."

DeFoor won support from Finance Committee members for the City Council Auditor's recommendation that an "operational and financial review" be done at least every three years. The agreement has a clause that says either Jacksonville or Jacksonville Beach can get out of the agreement with two-year's notice.

The city of Jacksonville already provides rescue service for emergency calls within Jacksonville Beach, said interim Fire Chief Keith Powers. When the Jacksonville Beach's fire department responds to a structure fire, it doesn't have enough firefighters to handle those calls so the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department deploys to put out the blaze.

Brian Hughes, chief administrative officer for the city of Jacksonville, told City Council members it's possible to dissect any number of agreements between the city of Jacksonville and the four other cities in Duval County for financial costs and benefits.

"I think ultimately, standardization and uniformity of emergency services makes a lot of sense," he said of Jacksonville Beach.

The city of Jacksonville already provides fire and rescue service to Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and the town of Baldwin through agreements with those cities.

If the agreement goes into effect for Jacksonville Beach, the city of Jacksonville could take over as soon as Oct. 1. But Powers said the city would first do extensive training for firefighters now working for Jacksonville Beach, so a more realistic timeline would be "mid-November, at best."

David Bauerlein: (904) 359-4581