ESTERO — If the issue of fire district consolidation in south Lee County is not dead, then it’s at least on life support.
A majority of fire commissioners from three Lee County fire districts agreed now was not the time to merge the districts together into one at a public meeting in Estero on Wednesday.
Fourteen commissioners and three fire chiefs representing Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District, Estero Fire Control and Rescue District and San Carlos Park Fire Department met at Estero High School to discuss the topic of consolidation and answer questions from the public.
A non-binding tally revealed commissioners were opposed to immediate consolidation by 14 to 1.
The topic of consolidation of the three independent districts has been debated for more than a decade, and became an even hotter topic as tax revenues have dropped due to the poor economic environment.
Proponents of consolidating the three districts have argued that a combined single department would save on personnel costs and reduce the budget. About 85 percent of the districts’ cost goes toward staff pay and benefits.
Estero Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook reported that collectively the districts have seen a 20 percent drop in revenue since the beginning of the recession. He said the districts can’t rely on an increase in revenue in the near future, nor can the districts rely on their reserves.
In 2009, the three fire districts hired an outside consulting firm to study the issue, which concluded that consolidation could save the districts more than $4 million annually. That report has been disputed by several fire commissioners, including San Carlos Park’s Terry Dettmar, who complained the report didn’t address the complexities of consolidation.
However, most of the fire commissioners at the meeting said that an immediate full consolidation would not save a significant amount of money. Instead, they argued that a “functional consolidation,” in which the districts partner together on sharing costs of supplies, training and repairs, would be a better idea.
The fire chiefs of the three districts have been working together on functional consolidation for several years. Vanderbrook said it has saved the districts $4.6 million collectively.
The lone dissenter in Wednesday’s discussion was Bonita fire commissioner Ed FitzGerald, who spoke strongly in favor of consolidation.
“I’m personally fully committed to consolidation and I don’t think functional consolidation addresses all of the problems we have,” he said.
FitzGerald sharply criticized the three districts’ chiefs and commissioners for being complacent in giving taxpayers significant savings. He included himself in those ranks.
Of the roughly dozen public speakers who voiced their concerns at the meeting attended by about 75, the majority of them said that pension costs were excessive and costing taxpayers too much.
Estero fire commissioner Sean James said he agreed with that assessment, and then added that consolidation does not directly address that problem.
Each district currently has separate contracts with their respective firefighters unions.
James reported that pension costs in Bonita and San Carlos Park districts far exceeded those in Estero. He said he could not support consolidation if it meant exposing his residents to those costs.
Other fire commissioners said, while they believed consolidation is a good idea in the long run, districts needed to move slowly toward a gradual consolidation. That means staying the course with functional consolidation.
“In my career at the Estero fire district, I have no doubt I will see consolidation, but I don’t believe it should be at this time,” said Grant Schwalbe, a San Carlos fire commissioner and a firefighter for the Estero fire district.
When meeting moderator Terry Eberle, executive editor of the News-Press, asked commissioners when would be the time for consolidation, James said it would be when firefighter compensations were more in line with each other.
Eberle ending the meeting by declaring consolidation “a dead issue” in south Lee County.