Would you campaign for a political office that may not exist? That will be the reality for some Golden Gate Fire Commission candidates as the district attempts to expand from three to five members this fall.
Although candidates must qualify for the two additional positions (Seats 4 and 5) along with fire board candidates for Seats 1 and 3 in June, their names will only appear on Nov. 2 general ballot if voters approve expansion in the August primary.
In December, the board voted 2-1 to pursue the referendum vote with commissioners Dave Stedman and Kevin Gerrity in favor and Chuck McMahon opposed.
“I was in favor of expanding the board many years ago,” says McMahon, a 12-year board member. “Now that I’m on the board I see how efficiently it runs with three members. It’s not broke so there’s no need to fix it -- unless someone has another agenda. It’s not the right time to be adding unnecessary costs to the district.”
This is not the first time an fire board expansion referendum has come before district voters. In 1998, residents voted by a 2-1 margin not to expand the three-member board.
That vote followed a 1997 legislative mandate that all independent districts in the state go to five-member boards. During the legislative delegation hearing that year, Golden Gate and Big Corkscrew Island fire officials told legislators that their districts were too small to attract five candidates and requested a special enabling act to remain at three members. East Naples Fire & Rescue had originally considered a similar request, but decided to go to five board members.
The legislative delegation voted to allow the two districts to hold a referendum and let voters decide the size of the boards.
GGFD voters overwhelmingly favored a three-member board, with 1,459 votes in favor and 655 against. BCIFD voters also approved retaining a three-member board, 136 to 43.
If the vote had been to expand the boards to five, candidates Jim Coletta and Linda Hartman would have run for seats 4 and 5 in the general election. Instead, the two were reimbursed their $25 filing fee. At Big Corkscrew, no one filed for the additional two positions. Had the referendum increased the size of that board, the members would have been appointed.
Today, Golden Gate and BCI remain the only independent fire districts in the state with three-member boards.
According to BCI Fire Chief Rita Greenberg, there has been no discussion to increase the size of that district’s board, which currently includes Paul Plamondon, Christopher Crossan and R. Eliseo Chao.
In 1998, the addition of two members would have cost the Golden Gate Fire District nothing because fire commissioners received no pay or insurance benefits and refused their $75 monthly stipend.
Today, they receive a yearly salary of $6,000 ($500 per month), a Federal Insurance Contribution ($459/year), health insurance ($4,731/year), dental and vision coverage ($308/year) and retirement benefits ($591/year) for a total per commissioner cost of $12,089 a year. Adding two more will cost the district an additional $24,178 per year.
Stedman says the cost of adding two more members could have been offset had the board voted to drop commissioners’ health insurance benefits earlier this year.
“I have concerns about the fiscal impact, but in my opinion, we do need a five-member board,” Stedman says.
Gerrity says the current board size is problematic and the benefits of having two more members exceed the cost.
“When one member gets sick or is unable to attend, it throws the whole thing into turmoil,” he says. “People might take it as an expansion of government, but in reality, it just makes sense. The cost is relatively minor.”
Over the years, the size of the board has created problems for the district whenever one member was absent and the two remaining members disagreed on matters put to vote. Last fall, board member McMahon and Stedman differed on the procedure used to replace commissioner Rob Stoneburner, who resigned to take a position with the Collier County Tax Collector’s Office. After some colorful debate, the two board members were able to resolve their differences and the vote resulted in the appointment of Gerrity to fill out Stoneburner’s term.
Gerrity says the additional board members will also provide more opportunity the expand geographical representation on the board.
In addition to the two possible fire board seats, the positions currently held by Stedman (Seat 3) and Gerrity (Seat 1) will also be up for election this year.
According to Collier County Elections qualifying officer Dave Carpenter, there will be no cost to the district for the referendum vote. In 2009, the district spent $47,000 to conduct a special precinct referendum to raise the districts millage 50 percent, from 1 to 1.5 mills. With a nine percent turn-out, 70 percent of the district’s voters favored raising taxes.