NAPLES — Editor's note: The story posted initially incorrectly stated that East Naples Fire Station 22 has shut down on two days because of mandatory furloughs. Since July 1, when the furloughs were implemented, the station has been closed, or “browned-out,” only once, said interim Fire Chief Keith Teague. The station’s operation capabilities have been downgraded at least four times because of manpower shortage. Teague said he expects staffing levels and the furloughs will force the department to close the station for more 24-hour shifts in the future.
The union representing East Naples firefighters is on the attack just one week after the department’s interim fire chief implemented mandatory unpaid furloughs for firefighters and occasional station closures citing the fire district’s “budget crisis.”
Chris Tobin, president of the Collier Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union, accused interim Fire Chief Keith Teague of lying about the need for the drastic measures and “deliberately” endangering the public by allowing station closures. Tobin said Teague’s real motivation was to strong-arm firefighters to take excessive pay and benefit cuts.
The statements were made in a letter addressed to the commissioners of the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District and sent to local news outlets.
Teague denied Tobin’s assertions and maintained that he is doing everything he can to responsibly address the agency’s budget shortfalls without putting the public at risk. The fire district finds itself in a financial pinch, Teague said, because the fire district has lost $3 million in tax revenue because of plummeting property values.
The decision to mandate furloughs, which saves the district money in personnel costs, came at a time when the district is negotiating with the firefighters union over a contract and the fire administration is planning for the next fiscal year’s budget.
Tobin’s letter and Teague’s response indicate that both parties are fighting to win public support as they negotiate possible pay cuts, benefit reductions or even layoffs for firefighters.
In his letter to commissioners, Tobin questioned Teague’s leadership on the issue of the station closure.
While Tobin dismissed the need to close any stations, he insisted closing Station 22, located on Bayshore Drive, was a mistake. He described it as “one of the busiest fire stations in East Naples.”
He argued that Station 24, which also houses a North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District engine near the intersection of Airport-Pulling Road and Golden Gate Parkway, could have been vacated with their neighboring district still providing coverage to that portion of the district. Tobin cited district documents that showed Station 22 had received more than twice the calls of Station 24 during the month of June.
Station closures will happen only days when furloughs force staffing levels to dip below 15 firefighters on a 24-hour shift. Since furloughs were implemented July 1, Station 22 has closed only once, said Deputy Chief Kingman Schuldt. In addition, Schuldt said response capabilities from the station have been downgraded four times, which means the station does not have enough manpower to man a truck to respond to a fire, but the station can respond to medical emergencies or be support for another truck at a fire.
Tobin also called Teague’s furlough plan a ploy to convince the public that the crisis was caused by the union’s position in collective bargaining talks.
“The firefighters have and continue to offer substantial concessions monetarily and in benefits,” Tobin wrote, adding the firefighters make those concessions without sacrificing service.
Tobin accused the fire district’s administration of being close-minded to the union’s proposals.
“Here’s the deal,” Teague countered. “Chris Tobin does not run the East Naples fire department.”
The interim chief maintained all decisions have been made with a need to balance public safety with the deep financial mess the district is facing.
Teague said Station 22 was selected for closure because it was the last station opened, and the area was the easiest to cover from other fire stations. Furthermore, without those drastic measures to reduce costs quickly, the district could be in more of a pinch, he said.
“This stuff wasn’t half-heartedly thought out,” he said
Teague dismissed Tobin’s accusations as an attempt to “manipulate the media to further his goal,” which he said is to avoid making firefighters take the necessary cuts to keep the district solvent.
And while Tobin questions why the interim chief and other administrators haven’t offered to take pay cuts themselves, Teague predicted there would be “pay cuts across the board” from the fire board down the frontline firefighters.
“This is shared pain,” he said.
Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, whose district includes part of East Naples, said she’s confident the fire department will maneuver past its financial woes without putting lives and property at risk.
“I don’t think they would ever cut expenses to the point that it affects the public safety of the residents of East Naples,” Fiala said.
The East Naples Fire District is not the only agency struggling to maintain public safety and balance its budget. In May, Immokalee eliminated six firefighter positions and closed one of its stations after commissioners learned the district was not collecting enough property tax revenue to fund its budget.
The East Naples Fire Board will meet at 5:30 tonight at Station 20, 4798 Davis Blvd.
Connect with Aaron Hale at /www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale