POLL Whatever happened to? Collier fire district consolidation

Should Collier fire districts consolidate?

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Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples,  listens to questions during a health care town hall meeting at the community room at the Naples Daily News building Wednesday, Sept. 09, 2009. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, listens to questions during a health care town hall meeting at the community room at the Naples Daily News building Wednesday, Sept. 09, 2009. Lexey Swall/Staff

Sen. Garrett Richter

Photo by KELLY FARRELL, Staff

Sen. Garrett Richter

Tom Grady

Tom Grady

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles about people and issues that were in the news in 2009, but haven’t been recently. Have a story suggestion? Post it below this story at naplesnews.com.

The next stage of lobbying is about to get under way over consolidation of Collier County’s independent fire districts.

Backed by two other Southwest Florida delegates who were at a Nov. 24 legislative agenda meeting, Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, will carry two draft bills to Tallahassee: one that would enable urban fire districts to merge; the other to allow rural districts to merge.

If the draft legislation gains full approval during the coming legislative session in Tallahassee, the bills would allow county voters to decide the merits of consolidation by referendum.

Neighborhood needs, and property tax rates, vary widely and the two mergers would be the first step toward total consolidation, fire district leaders.

The session starts on the first Tuesday in March and concludes the first Friday in May.

Independent fire districts created by voters are in Big Corkscrew Island, East Naples, Golden Gate, Immokalee and North Naples.

Marco Island has its own fire department, as does Naples. The county operates Isles of Capri Fire-Rescue and Ochopee Fire-Rescue.

EMS is categorized as a county-run operation.

Beyond reaffirming alliances, little else has taken place since the Nov. 24 legislative agenda meeting, East Naples Fire Chief Doug Dyer said.

While local bills are rarely challenged by legislators from other counties and delegations, these didn’t gain unanimous approval locally. Two Collier County legislators don’t believe the issue should be put before voters.

Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, both voted against moving the legislation forward because the numbers didn’t make sense to them, they said.

Grady and Richter were backed in their opposition by the Collier County Commission and the county’s Emergency Medical Services director, Robert Tober.

Hudson, a former Golden Gate Fire-Rescue district commissioner, supports consolidation in concept, and was backed by fire districts and some other Southwest Florida legislators.

This is the farthest consolidation talks have advanced in 20 years, according to North Naples Fire-Rescue Chief Orly Stolts.

For the past few years, the issue has been marked by insults and propaganda between those supporting consolidation and those against it.

Both sides acknowledge that whatever advantages consolidation could produce – and both sides agree that the piecemeal structure duplicates services and is outdated – the fight is now about money and-or power.

This attempt at consolidation was initially proposed by county commissioners in June 2006 to take over ambulance services in order to save county government money.

Those who oppose consolidation say there wouldn’t be a cost-savings benefit to taxpayers, and are telling residents that their property taxes will increase.

Those who support consolidation, including attorney Laura Donaldson who wrote the bills, say there wouldn’t be an immediate savings, but it would come in time -- after union contracts ran their course and were equalized.

CLICK HERE for our entire 2009 "Whatever happened to?" series

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