Leesburg fire chief withheld critical information about fire-training center proposal

Troubling new information that has surfaced since an April 7 column about a Leesburg fire-training center suggests that the fire chief withheld information that there was already one in town that firefighters could use for free.

Fire Chief Kevin Bowman didn't tell commissioners that a fire-training center owned by Lake County — nearly identical to the one he was proposing — already exists in the Sunnyside area of the city. That's in addition to the Lake Technical Center Fire Academy's training facility in Tavares.

Bowman said the cost of the Lake Tech center would be "astronomical" because of fees to use it and the cost of paying other crews to cover Leesburg during training time. However, city firefighters could use the Lake County Fire Rescue facility for free without overtime, since they would be training inside city limits.

Most disturbing is this: When the training chief for Lake County Fire Rescue offered to schedule time for city firefighters at the center, Bowman responded in a way the training chief didn't expect:

"He said, 'I want you to tell me why we can't use it,'" Battalion Chief Dan Miller said. "I said, 'Whhaaat?' ''

Miller said he gathered his wits and then replied, "'Chief, I can't do that.' They could schedule it anytime. I told him, 'You can come this day, this day, this day.' He just wanted to go back and say that Lake County offered it but he still couldn't use it, and he still needs the money."

And that's precisely what Bowman did say when asked last week what prevented him from using the facility and why he failed to tell commissioners that it was an option for training.

Initially, Bowman did not answer the question, but he later wrote an email of explanation to Leesburg's interim city manager: "I spoke with Training Chief Miller earlier this year, and he told me that the County would be using their facility every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Plus they run their probationary firefighters through their paces on other days. And, they have [a] wooden staircase inside where they burn, which I don't feel is safe."

Miller disputed Bowman's description of their conversation, saying that he urged the Leesburg chief to use the facility and never told him it was tied up on any certain days. Miller said he believes in free training for all firefighters and that he repeatedly offered the center.

Both Miller and his boss, Assistant Chief Jack Fillman, said they would not have objected if Leesburg wanted to change the wood stairs for metal ones. However, Miller said Bowman didn't mention a staircase problem, and Fillman said Bowman didn't communicate with him at all. The county's facility was inspected and approved by both the state fire marshal's office and the Florida State Fire College.

Bowman didn't respond to a request for an explanation of why he couldn't use the Lake County facility and why he didn't tell city commissioners about it. Instead, he forwarded an email seeking comment to a city spokesman, who didn't provide additional information.

However, an email exchange between Bowman and Lake County Chief John Jolliff backs up what Miller had to say. It occurred Aug. 3, 2012, when Bowman emailed Jolliff about using the county's training center, which is built with giant metal cargo containers.

Bowman: "If Leesburg wanted to use your … [cargo] box facility at Sunnyside, what are your fees to use it?"

Jolliff: "Cooperative. Free."

Bowman: "Thanks. How busy is it? On the average week — how many days would it be available?"

Jolliff: "Most of the time, it's open."

Despite the offer, Bowman told commissioners on March 11 that firefighters need the center. He floated the notion that it eventually will support itself from rental fees and even will contribute to the general fund. That's fantasy, considering that Lake offers its facility for free to small departments throughout the county.

At this point, Leesburg commissioners ought to be furious. How can they ever again trust their fire chief when making a decision involving hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Commissioner John Christian said he hadn't known that a fire-training center existed in Sunnyside when he agreed to spend money to build a new one.

"It would have made me really consider my vote," he said.

Mayor David Knowles, who also voted to buy cargo containers for the center, parroted Bowman's claim that the center wasn't available when it was needed. After being told that wasn't true, Knowles didn't respond.

Commissioner Jay Hurley didn't respond. That's hardly a surprise. Firefighters heavily backed his campaign.

Commissioners Bill Polk and Elise Dennison voted against the measure, saying the city could have used the Lake Tech facility to train.

The sad part of this tale is that in a time of economic difficulty, Leesburg taxpayers are getting ripped off and charged twice.

Consider that only two years ago, Lake County built a perfectly serviceable facility, only one box smaller than Leesburg's plan, for $8,000, using volunteers for construction. The city already had a building at the site that it could use for a classroom.

The city must build from the ground up, which will cost considerably more. For example, Bowman is buying four extra cargo boxes that aren't immediately needed for $12,000 and is planning to pay $13,100 for everything from engineering plans to sewer and water hookups to crane service.

Why do that? Another training center is available and free just down the road. Commissioners should put a stop to it now.

An earlier version of this column may have left the impression that city commissioners voted to spend almost $80,000 to build a firefighter-training center. The only vote taken was to buy cargo containers for the center at a cost of up to $35,000. During a discussion, three of the five commissioners informally agreed to move ahead with the project, which the fire chief estimated at nearly $80,000.

Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.

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