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Fire Rescue warned condo to pay or evacuate premises

Off-duty firefighters who patrolled a Northeast Miami-Dade condo tower for nearly four months in 2004 and 2005 spotted no smoke but sparked plenty of animosity.

"I would walk into our rec room and I would catch them with their feet up on our furniture, sleeping, " said Merrill Lipowsky, who owns a unit in the building, The Towers of Quayside I.

Relations became so strained that one resident uttered racial slurs at her would-be protectors, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. William Van Meter, who runs the fire-watch program.

A fire department memo refers to the unnamed woman as the "rude lady" and indicates that at least one firefighter refused to work at Quayside on account of her.

The watch began Oct. 13, 2004, after an MDFR inspector found that a probable lightning strike had disabled the fire alarm. But in the last hectic weeks of the hurricane season, it was difficult to get contractors to do the needed repairs, said Paul Levine, a former building manager.

In the meantime, the fire-watch bills piled up - two off-duty firefighters in the building around the clock, at an average hourly wage of $35.71, MDFR records show. The final bill came to $193,283.

In February 2005, an MDFR accountant e-mailed Van Meter and department Chief Financial Officer Scott Mendelsberg with news that Quayside had not paid its bill. The accountant asked whether it should be referred to the county's collection agency, which, like private collection agencies, takes a cut of whatever it recovers.

"No," Mendelsberg replied. "Are they still on Firewatch? If so, let's threaten them and if necessary inform them as of a certain date (March 1?) firewatch will end and we will seek to evacuate the premises. Let them complain to whoever they think will step in."

However, because the Quayside fire alarm was operational again by then, the fire watch had already been lifted.

In an e-mailed response to The Miami Herald, county Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said the idea to threaten the condo with evacuation was aimed at protecting taxpayers - who had already paid for the fire watch that so angered residents at Quayside.

"The taxpayers had paid the county employees and should be reimbursed for this cost, " Lorenzo's e-mail said.

The issue lingered for more than a year, but just in the past month, Quayside's new management "reached an agreement with the fire department relevant to the fire watch charges, " said John D'Errico, a member of the condo's board of directors. He would not reveal the terms of the deal.