Six chairs adorned with a firefighter’s yellow jacket, helmet and boots sat at the front of the meeting room at Immokalee Station 30 — one for each Immokalee firefighter laid off late last week.
During Tuesday night’s emergency budget meeting, Immokalee fire commissioners got an earful from constituents.
“Y’all failed this community,” Larry Wilcox, an Immokalee resident, told the fire commissioners.
Commissioners voted for the layoffs on Thursday following the news their district would run out of money by December without making cuts.
Tuesday’s meeting was originally schedule to determine which two positions would be the final of the eight total layoffs the board voted for on Thursday night. No decisions were made, however, and none are expected until the end of the month pending discussions with the Immokalee firefighters union.
Instead, the meeting turned into a forum for the board to explain the nature of the budget crisis to the public, followed by public outcry.
Behind the chairs, Immokalee citizens and local firefighters vocally scorned the layoffs at the standing-room-only meeting. Most of the criticism was aimed at perceived lack of oversight by the commissioners, followed by a “rash” move to layoff firefighters.
Following the sharp criticism, one fire commissioner, Joe Matthews, got up and left before the meeting ended.
Commissioners voted to eliminate the eight department positions by a 2 to 1 vote because of what was described by one commissioner as “grave budget concerns.”
Commissioner Pam Brown said she first learned of the concerns at a budget workshop on May 3. To Brown and Matthews, the concerns were so strong that both voted to cut six of the 21 frontline firefighter positions effective Friday. They also voted to fire Chief Scott Birge, only citing the district’s financial condition.
Commissioner Edward ‘Ski’ Olesky voted against the immediate layoffs, arguing for time to negotiate salary cuts and fewer layoffs with the Immokalee firefighters union.
Given a chance to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, firefighters and members of the public blasted the board’s decision and its oversight of the budget.
Terry Heath, a 21-year Immokalee fire veteran, asked the commissioners why they didn’t know the district was in trouble sooner, pointing out the board gets spending reports every month.
Heath, who survived the recent layoffs, also offered to take a buyout from the district to preserve a younger firefighter’s job.
Chris Tobin, union president for Golden Gate and East Naples firefighters, told commissioners they should have tried to work with their union before slashing jobs.
“You acted too quickly,” Tobin said. “You need to slow down, be thorough.”
North Naples firefighters union vice president Eloy Ricardo, criticized them for their lack of knowledge of fire service issues.
“There ought to be a book on how to be a fire commissioner,” Ricardo said.
Brown and Matthews both defended themselves arguing the immediate cuts were necessary to avoid financial peril. Brown said the district has a tough time collecting revenue because non-profit organizations in Immokalee don’t have to pay taxes and the economic environment has made it harder to collect from others who owe.
Olesky said the board didn’t know of the current budget crisis sooner because they were never given that information by their auditor.
Matthews then offered to talk to any member of the Immokalee public about fire department issues before exiting from a side door before the meeting was adjourned.
It was auditor Jeff Tuscan, who was contracted by the district specifically to investigate the spending practices of the former chief, who broke the news to commissioners earlier this month that the district was running out of money.
Tuscan reported to the board on Thursday that with the current spending levels the department would run out of money by the end of the year and face further problems in 2012.
“You would be unable to pay salaries and bills,” Tuscan said. “The district would essentially be bankrupt.”
The district cannot raise taxes without a voter referendum, and with virtually no other places to cut costs, Tuscan said, slashing personnel costs was essentially the only way to avoid running out of money in December.
But the budget woes are not expected to end in 2011 either.
Tuscan advised the board it needed find make roughly $600,000 in cuts between now and the end of 2012 to make it to 2013 with enough reserves to meet state requirements.
There were three scenarios discussed at Thursday’s morning: cutting six positions, cutting eight, or reducing salaries across the board by 25 percent. The second scenario held the greatest estimated savings, according to Tuscan.
Due to union contract issues about seniority, the Immokalee firefighters union was given until Tuesday to weigh-in on the remaining two positions. However, Thomas Cunningham, the Immokalee firefighters union president, put off weighing in on those cuts until the end of May.
Cunningham said he has been in contact with a union attorney about the legality of those layoffs.
Even with the eight positions eliminated, Tuscan advised the board it needed to find additional $100,000 in cuts to have enough reserves to finish 2012.