Collier County commissioners have no room to talk about efficiency, says North Naples Fire Chief Orly Stolts, who heats up the fire district consolidation debate this week’s "One on One with Jeff Lytle.
He says commissioners seem to bring up the issue to distract from their own agendas and problems, and defends North Naples’ move to ambulance service as the right thing to do to save lives.
This is an edited transcript of the first half. Video highlights as well as partial video/texts of past interviews are available at naplesnews.com/oneonone.
The entire 30-minute program airs Sunday at noon on Comcast CN14. Lytle is editorial page/Perspective editor of the Daily News.
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Lytle: Let’s get right to it. At a Collier County commissioners meeting the other day, before they voted to go ahead with a straw ballot on November on fiere district consolidation, you told them, and I quote, "Truly it’s none of your damn business."
Stolts: Yeah, I said that. Actually it isn’t any of their business, but I’ll say it just a little bit differently than I did at the commission meeting. They’re the elected officials for Collier County, the government that they run. The independent fire districts in this county, of which there are five, have their own elected officials. They get out there and they campaign just like the county commissioners do but their job is to run the North Naples Fire District and other fire districts.
I just felt and I still feel strongly that any question that would happen to go on to a ballot should have really came from the fire service itself.
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Lytle: Okay. Well I think in context what the commissioners were saying is that they are frustrated. They look at some of the independent fire districts’ spending practices and all eyes always lead to North Naples.
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Lytle: They see what commissioners believe is waste. They see ... The commissioners were just so mad at you at the end of a commission meeting in May that they took off after the fire departments’ inspections of air conditioning changes.
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Lytle: And they also went so far as to suggest that the county fire marshal, who sort of works for all the fire districts, should be kicked out of county offices.
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Lytle: I don’t know how it can get much worse than that. How do you go about fixing that?
Stolts: I have a solution to fixing that bu the voters have to take care of that.
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Lytle: Well, what is that?
Stolts: You know I don’t think we really have any friends on the County Commission. I mean it’s obvious after their little outburst the other day that there were three of them that spoke, in my opinion, very poorly of the fire department. I don’t know what the reason is; I don’t know what why they’re attacking us so hard. If they take a look at our district for instance, our board has done a great job over the years running our agency. We’ve got a pretty substantial budget. It keeps getting smaller but we do a good job of managing that. North Naples Fire District has been very cautious and careful on what we purchase. We have no debt whatsoever and actually we’ve done a great job over the years creating a good reserve for the rainy day. And I’ll tell you the rainy day is here.
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Stolts: It’s absolutely here and we are starting for the first time ever to have to pull out of those reserves to keep maintaining our level of service. So our independent district has been doing a very good job. I’m not so sure that the county has been doing a like job.
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Lytle: At what?
Stolts: At maybe managing their county.
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Lytle: You mean the county in general?
Stolts: The county in general.
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Stolts: I mean they got like, I believe, a $1.2 billion annual budget and $700 million of debt. I don’t know; it seems like there’s a lot of debt there for the size of the budget. I don’t know whether they’re mad at the economy and what’s going on but it seems like they’re trying to blame the fire service for anything that comes along. And I’ve seen them bring up the topic of consolidation in the past. It seems like every time that the county does that there’s always something else going on in the county at the same time. It’s almost like, well, let’s pull up the fire district topic and discuss it again because we’ve got other issues that we want to do and we want everybody looking over here. I don’t know.
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Lytle: Oh, so it’s a diversionary tactic.
Stolts: I don’t know what it is. It seems like every eight or nine years they want to bring it up and talk about it.
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Lytle: Here’s one of the things that I think the commissioners have stuck in their craw about you, meaning the fire districts, and again especially North Naples. It’s that they see you spending money like it grows on trees and they see your policies aimed at adding staff rather than cutting back staff and adding staff training, which the records show adds to your staff payroll. I mean every level of training your staff gets they get more money. They also see the firefighters union controlling the elections of the board members and the board members choose the fire chiefs, like you, so it’s easy to say "Wow, who’s in charge? Are the inmates in charge of the asylum?’’
Stolts: Well first of all, if that’s the way the County Commission sees it then I would say that they’re not educated on what’s actually going on in the district. First of all, we don’t just spend money on trees (sic). The money we spend in our district is very well thought out. We don’t just go buy things just because we have the money to buy them. In fact, there’s been a whole lot of not buying anything in the last four years since things have started to change around and that concerned me greatly and we’ll get into that later.
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Stolts: But again, it’s somebody sitting on the outside. They’re always saying, well, everybody’s telling them that consolidation is the way to go, that’s what the county keeps saying, and I ask, "Who are those people?’’
I took over as an acting chief about a year ago and was appointed a few months later as the chief of the department. I went out to our people. I’ve been hitting the bricks for the last nine months, hard. I’ve been talking to a lot of homeowners associations, business owners, anybody that would let me in the door to talk to them about it. Give me a group of people I’ll be more than happy to go. The residents in our district don’t relay that same information. Nobody says, "I think we need to consolidate.’’ They all question consolidation and ask about it a little bit. We inform them to the best of our ability on what it could or couldn’t do for them but none of our people are beating their hands on the desk saying we’ve got to consolidate because it’ll be a more cost-effective efficient way of doing it.
What’s really interesting to me is that when I’ve been out talking to these people, a lot of the people don’t even know that there’s such a thing as an independent fire district. A lot of people in our community just think that we’re all one and they don’t realize that we’re ... I always start my conversations out" "Do you know who your fire department even is? We’re the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue. We have an independent district of 70 square miles and a population of 100,000.’’
So we’re trying to educate them on what we are. We explain that there ares five independent districts, two MSTUs and two cities making up nine different fire departments.
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Lytle: And by MSTUs you mean Municipal Services Taxing Units.
Stolts: That’s correct — Isles of Capri and Ochopee.
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Lytle: Okay, thank you.
Stolts: And then there ares the two cities, and then Collier County EMS (Emergency Medical Services) is ran by the county.
So that’s an educational part that we explain to our citizens because they need to know how the system works.
And then we throw the question out: Now do you think we should all consolidate into one? And raise your hand, and three quarters of the people will raise their hand.
And we say, now let us explain what you have in North Naples now and we’ll talk about all going into one large organization and after we explain all of that then we ask the same question again, and it’s ironic but nobody raises their hand after they learn what it’s all about.
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Lytle: If this goes for a referendum in November, as I believe it will, will it solve anything?
Stolts: I don’t think so.
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Lytle: Or there are so many questions that whether you’re for it or against it you could say, "Oh, yeah, well, the referendum didn’t ask about this.’’
Stolts: I don’t think it’ll change anything. I think it may pass because of the way it’s written.
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Lytle: But then if it passes what will that mean?
Stolts: I don’t know. Everybody’s got to remember that the five independent districts were created by a referendum many years ago. In 1961 the voters of North Naples went out in the sand and drew some lines and said this is going to be the new North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District and they voted and had legislation formed and sent to Tallahassee that created the district. So I feel strongly that if the district is ever dissolved and combined into anything else, it should be the voters of that district who decide.
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Lytle: Part of the discussion on consolidation will include ambulance service, EMS. The bottom line question for you as the chief is why is North Naples going down that road on its own toward this service? I Collier County dropping the ball or failing in its ambulance service? Why are you so compelled to do it on your own? And it’s not a moneymaker.
Stolts: No it’s not.
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Lytle: It’s a staff builder.
Stolts: Well, I don’t agree with that either.
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Lytle: Okay, but why are you so intent upon doing this?
Stolts: Because it’s the right thing to do. It really is. I’ve been in this job for 35 years and I’ve never lost a battle based on my beliefs that something is the right thing to do. We’re in the business to save lives and protect property and when we’re talking about an EMS system, we’re talking about saving peoples lives and I’m dedicated to doing that and the 140 people that work for me are all dedicated to that. So we’re going to save lives any way we can.
We have 54 paramedics in our department today that are state-certified paramedics. They should be allowed to practice on patients who need advanced life support.
Now I’m a firm believer on the new thing that they have come out with recently, the talk now is to get basic life support to someone within four minutes. You should always attempt to get basic life support to any patient that needs it within four minutes. That’s good. Now to do that, if it’s going to firefighters or paramedics. You’re going to have to have a lot more firefighters and paramedics and I really don’t think this is the time to put a whole bunch of extra people on. So what I think we need to do is we need to start educating the public more.
There are new CPR techniques out there that will greatly help our chances of reviving a cardiac arrest victim if we can just convince the people that are on scene when the incident happens to do something.
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Lytle: Do what?
Stolts: Well, like CPR for instance. If somebody would drop of a heart attack and they’re not breathing, the old way of CPR is you pump on their chest a little bit and then blow in their mouth. County EMS Medical Director Dr. Bob Tober is doing a great job on leading this. Just doing the chest compressions until emergency responders can get there is of great value. So I think we can do a much better job of teaching people CPR, just doing the chest compressions.
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Lytle: Public education.
Stolts: Yeah, I think anybody would do the chest compressions, but when it comes to blowing in somebody’s mouth, when they’re vomiting, there ares not too many people who will do that.
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Lytle: Taxable values in North Naples Fire District are scheduled to go down another 9 percent.
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Lytle: Given that, and in view of your loyalty to your staff who helped really select you, will you favor a tax increase or will you favor austerity measures or spending of reserves?
Stolts: Well, I think it’s going to have to be a combination of all and it’s going to come down to a bottom line and somewhere along the line we have to ask our residents what level of service do they expect, what level of service do they want? Now I have this conception that when somebody picks up a telephone and calls 911, they’re not having a good day or they wouldn’t be calling 911. They have an emergency. Whatever that emergency is I think they expect something from the responders. I think they expect us to get there in the shortest amount of time as possible. I think they expect us to have the adequate number of people to do the job, whatever it is, when we arrive. I truly think they expect us to know what we’re doing when we get there — to be well-educated and well trained.
So what is a reasonable amount of time? Is four to six minutes, our response times right now are running in that five to six minute range.
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Lytle: So you’re saying you’ll be going to your constituents and saying, "Look — to keep the level of service up we’re recommending a tax increase’’?
Stolts: I don’t know. I don’t know, we could come to that someday; we really could. Where we are today with the declining revenues, as you mentioned, we have cut out everything that we can possibly cut out. The biggest thing that we’re doing right now is that we’re not doing any capital projects — the buildings that we built over the last 50 years, the apparatus that we’ve bought over the number of years.
We have had to do away with our schedule to replace the roofs, paint the outside of the buildings, do the capital project repairs that need to be done. I mean, if a roof’s leaking and the waters running in we’re going to have to fix that because we can’t let it continue to destroy the property.
I’ve got three engines and a ladder truck right now that are coming up on 15 years of age and they’re running, but they’re coming to a point where it’s going to cost us a lot more to keep them up and running than it would be to replace it.
We don’t have the money to do that anymore.