IMMOKALEE — Already working on a slender budget and with an anemic staff, the Immokalee Fire Control District cut down to the bone Thursday evening, slashing nearly a third of its response capabilities and firing its chief.
Immokalee lost six of its 21 firefighters after the independent district’s commissioners voted for immediate layoffs because of budget woes. Fire Chief Scott Birge, who has taken heat for alleged spending indiscretions in 2010, was also terminated during Thursday night’s fire commission meeting.
The six firefighters were notified Friday morning of the decision.
The decision closes Immokalee Station 31 on Carson Road, reduces fire engine companies from three to two, and leaves only five firefighters per shift to cover the district’s 234 square miles, which includes Ave Maria.
Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, who heard the news Friday morning, said the move would certainly jeopardize the safety of Immokalee residents and visitors, and also put a strain on neighboring fire departments, which will be called on to pick up the slack.
Immokalee fire commissioners said the layoffs came after an auditor’s report showed the district did not have enough money to cover everything budgeted for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Two more positions in the department are expected to be eliminated next week as well. Those could be more firefighters, or it could be fire prevention or administrative staff.
The votes to layoff firefighters and fire Birge were 2 to 1.
Commissioners Pam Brown and Joe Matthews voted for the cuts. Edward “Ski” Olesky, who said he favored fewer cuts, voted against it.
The fire board is down to three commissioners after Terrie Aviles and Phung Ho, both elected in November, resigned in recent months.
Brown said the cuts were necessary for “budget issues.”
In recent years, Southwest Florida’s fire districts have faced reduced revenues because of falling property values. In 2010, the Immokalee fire district revenue dropped 17 percent, or $361,000.
Layoffs were avoided in 2010, but the district dropped plans to hire three new firefighters.
Revenue projections for the next fiscal year are expected soon.
Olesky said a forensic auditor, who was investigating allegations against Birge, was the one who reported that the district was running out of money.
Thomas Cunningham, the Immokalee firefighters union president, said he learned of the potential layoffs only hours before Thursday’s meeting, but he was aware the district would be facing budget woes.
“Last month, I received a rough analysis saying there were going to be some issues in the budget,” he said.
Cunningham said he prepared proposals with the union administration on areas where there could be budget reductions without the drastic cuts in staffing.
He said there were never formal discussions between the district officials and union representatives.
“I don’t feel that enough, time, care and consideration was made in cutting other things than just manpower,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said staffing levels directly correlates with emergency response times.
“We were operating as a skeleton crew to begin with,” he said. “Now we’ve lost even more manpower.”
He points to a recent car crash on State Road 29, which killed one woman and injured six.
Immokalee firefighters were the first on the scene to aid the seven patients, he said.
Whereas five firefighters were able to respond to that fire within a few minutes, now there would only be two.
He said it could take as long as 15 minutes before Collier County EMS or other fire district staff could get on scene.
Given the risks to public safety, Cunningham said a larger effort should have been made to find alternative cuts.
Olesky said personnel cuts were inevitable, but he would have preferred a proposal to cut firefighter wages and eliminate fewer positions.
Brown said personnel costs, which accounts for the majority of the district’s budget, had to be cut.
“I feel very bad about what we had to do,” Brown said. “That goes for both the chief and the firefighters. I don’t think anyone wants to do something like this.”
There are now 15 firefighter positions, two positions dedicated to fire inspection and prevention, one deputy chief and one administrative assistant, according to a fire district press release.
Brown declined to say why Birge was ousted, though she alluded to “issues in the past.”
Birge survived a similar vote to fire him in November when questions were raised about how he spent district money. Birge was suspended with pay in November for spending nearly $600 on membership to a leadership networking organization and other smaller expenditures that some commissioners deemed unnecessary.
Birge also faced questions on failing to create a required 5-year plan, inappropriately reimbursing himself $2,000 for educational courses, not enforcing the district’s purchasing policy and mismanaging compensation time for himself and his staff.
However, Brown would not confirm that Birge was fired over those issues.
With the immediate termination of Birge, Deputy Fire Chief Raul Dimas, Jr. was named the interim chief. On Friday morning, Dimas said the department was still reeling from the news, but would still work to address the challenges and protect the people of Immokalee.
He said, “We’re going to do what we can to get out of it and trying to beat this somehow.”
The changes will also affect other regional fire departments.
Immokalee shares mutual aid agreements with Big Corkscrew Island, Ochopee, Golden Gate, and North Naples fire districts. The agreements ensure there are backup engine companies available for large scale incidents.
The loss of a station in Immokalee could put a bigger strain on those neighboring districts, Coletta said, some of which are facing staffing shortages of their own.
The Daily News was unable to reach Commissioner Matthews for comment.
Connect with Aaron Hale at www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale/