As layoffs loom for East Naples firefighters and the fire district dips into budget reserves, fire officials say a tax increase is the only way to staunch further losses to public safety.
East Naples voters will get to decide whether to approve those increases in 2012.
Firefighters took a vote of their own this week, offering to self-impose pay and benefits cuts in the hopes of sparing nine firefighters jobs scheduled to be eliminated on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District fire board voted to send a ballot referendum to voters asking for an increase in property taxes from $1.5 to $2 per $1,000 of taxable property value. The referendum will appear on the 2012 presidential primary ballot on Jan. 31.
“We, the fire department, are asking the people to help,” Fire Commissioner Rob Boyer said.
Declining property values have taken a toll on the East Naples fire district’s budget, as they have on other Southwest Florida fire district budgets. In East Naples, revenues have dropped by nearly 30 percent over a four year period. The district faced a $3.2 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year.
In response, East Naples fire commissioners voted unanimously to lay off nine people to save money earlier this month. The board also voted on pay cuts of 14 to 17 percent and increased benefit contributions for firefighters for a combined savings of $2.5 million. More pay cuts and layoffs could be in the future for non-union employees.
“To me, it’s flagrantly obvious we have to increase millage (tax rate) at this time,” Boyer said.
The question fire commissioners debated was how much they could ask the public to raise taxes and still have a chance of getting a majority ‘yes’ vote.
Initially, East Naples staff introduced ballot wording that would increase property taxes initially to $2.1 per $1,000 of taxable property value, with the option to increase the rate to a maximum of $3.75 without going to voters again.
East Naples residents at the meeting spoke out against allowing future tax hikes without another voter referendum.
“(Voters) are going to look at it as a blank check,” Lely resident Tom Connolly said.
Ultimately, fire commissioners agreed to set its cap at $2. The vote was unanimous 4-0. Fire Commissioner Richard Gibbons was not present.
The ballot question now goes to the Collier Supervisor of Elections to place on the presidential primary ballot in 2012. If approved it would allow the fire district to increase its tax rate for fiscal 2013.
While fire officials say they are trying to prevent future layoffs with the ballot referendum, East Naples firefighters are doing what they can to prevent the nine layoffs that have already been announced.
The Collier Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union sent a memo to fire officials on Tuesday offering cuts they say will save the district enough money to avoid layoffs.
“Our first priority is keeping those nines guys on the job,” said Chris Tobin, president of the firefighters union.
Tobin said firefighters are trying to be “proactive” and “show we are serious about saving the district money.” He said the firefighters are also looking for some give and take from the fire district. Firefighters are asking for a shorter workweek to accompany their pay cuts.
However, the effort is too late to immediately prevent the impending layoffs, acting East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said.
“As of right now, the decision voted on by the board — those cost saving measures — will be implemented on the 30th,” the chief said.
Schuldt said it would take a fire board decision to stop the layoffs, and there won’t be a chance to change it this month. Although commissioners met Tuesday night, the subject of jobs was not on the agenda, which meant commissioners couldn’t vote on the union’s proposal.
Fire commissioners could reconsider layoffs at their regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 8.
East Naples Fire Commissioner Tom Cannon said he is open to ideas that would save the jobs that he agreed to cut this month.