East Naples fire commissioners rehire laid-off firefighters despite no new revenue

Kingman Schuldt was named active chief of the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District on Sept. 27 after Fire Chief Keith Teague retired.

Photo by AARON HALE

Kingman Schuldt was named active chief of the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District on Sept. 27 after Fire Chief Keith Teague retired.

Chris Tobin, president of the Collier Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union.

Chris Tobin, president of the Collier Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union.

With no new revenues found since nine firefighters were laid off in late October, commissioners of the cash-strapped East Naples fire district will dip into dwindling reserve funds to restore some services and put five of those laid off back to work.

In an about-face, commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to take about $400,000 in reserve funds to pay for the five firefighters through September 2012. Those firefighters will help restore some of the staffing cuts, which led to fewer engines in service and temporary shutdowns at the district's Bayshore Drive station.

"That was the main drive behind everything — trying to maintain some level of service," said commission chairman Rob Boyer, who supported bringing the five firefighters back.

Since the layoffs, an engine was taken out of service in favor of a smaller squad 17 times, interim Chief Kingman Schuldt said. The Bayshore Drive station was temporarily closed eight times. Bringing the five firefighters back should improve the situation, officials said.

"The reality of that is I cannot say an engine will always be open there, but I would think for the most part the station will not be out of service," Schuldt said.

The five rehired firefighters were laid off in late October, part of cuts made to save $1 million and help curb the district's $3.2 million budget shortfall. The 50 remaining firefighters also saw their pay cut by 14 to 17 percent and have to contribute more to their pensions — savings estimated at $1.5 million.

With the commission voting Tuesday to back out of a service fee plan, a January millage referendum is now the best hope for a revenue bump.

At Tuesday's meeting, a vote was first taken to rehire all nine laid off firefighters. That vote failed, with commissioners Boyer, Angela Davis and Robert Hughes opposing the resolution.

A second vote to restore five jobs passed, with the trio voting in favor of it. Commissioners Thomas Cannon and Richard Gibbons, who favored rehiring all nine firefighters, voted against bringing back five.

"I personally didn't want to go down that road, but I had other commissioners showing me that it was good enough to hire back the five," Boyer said. "It will be tight, and if it doesn't work, we're going to have to lay people off."

The firefighters' union president, Chris Tobin, said he wanted all nine firefighters back on the job but was heartened by the compromise.

"It's a mixed emotional period," Tobin said. "You have five that are happy to be on the job, and you've got four that are still in limbo and not doing well."

Tobin questioned why the commissioners laid off the five firefighters only to rehire them six weeks later.

"I don't understand what they're doing or the decisions they're making," Tobin said. "There's no reason they should have laid off those nine firefighters to begin with."

The rehiring process will come at a cost. The reserve fund will drop from about $3.2 million to $2.8 million, closer to Schuldt's recommendation that at least $2.5 million be kept in reserves.

About $2 million is needed in reserves to cover expenses for October and November 2012, the first two months of the fiscal year, Schuldt said. The district still pays its bills during those months, but tax revenues for the fiscal year typically don't start coming in until mid-November or early December.

The remaining $500,000 is needed for the district's maximum insurance deductible and any costs not in the budget.

To help stem the budget shortfall for fiscal 2011-12, commissioners voted last month to impose fees for fire and rescue runs. The fees would have ranged from $450 to $900 per hour.

Citizen complaints led commissioners to back off the plan Tuesday, voting 4-1 in favor of suspending its implementation. The proposal will remain on the books if commissioners decide to revisit it.

Only Boyer supported keeping the fees in place, saying most insurers pay for those recovery costs. The firefighters union opposed it.

"It's still there at any time we get in a financial place where something happens and people say that recovery system might be a good idea," Boyer said.

The January millage asks voters to approve a tax increase from $1.50 to $2 per $1,000 taxable property value.

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