Tax referendum failures could renew consolidation talk

Video from NBC-2
East Naples-Golden Gate Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt.

Photo by Aaron Hale

East Naples-Golden Gate Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt.

Robert Metzger

Robert Metzger

The votes have been cast, and now two Collier County fire districts are left wondering what comes next.

Golden Gate voters on Tuesday voted down a request to increase the tax rate cap, or maximum tax rate, for the Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District. East Naples voters shot down a similar proposal for the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District.

The failure to approve an increased cap could mean more reductions — whether it be in levels of service or staffing — in fiscal 2012-13 if property values continue to decline. But proponents of consolidation said Tuesday's outcome could reignite talks of district mergers.

Golden Gate fire Chief Robert Metzger said the district needed to increase it's tax rate to bring in the same amount of revenue in fiscal 2012-13 as it is this year.

The district could experience a $900,000 shortfall — the equivalent of 15 full-time positions — next year if property values continue to decline, Metzger said.

That shortfall could result in a reduction of staffing levels, longer response times and the possible closure of one or two of the district's four stations.

Since a tax increase won't be possible the district "may not be maintaining the current levels of services," Metzger said.

"I think the real issue is the economy," Metzger said. "(Voters) are hurting so bad, and they can't give any more. I understand ... and I wish things were different."

Golden Gate may not be the only district facing reductions, East Naples fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said his district also is "facing potential reductions" because commissioners will be unable to increase the tax rate. Schuldt, however, said it's too early to tell what those reductions will be.

"I can't speculate to that," Schuldt said.

Some Collier residents think they may have a way to reduce expenses without a reduction of services: Merge the districts.

Chris Tobin, president of the Collier Professional Firefighter and Paramedics Union, said Collier County fire districts have entered into various interlocal agreements over the years to merge operations for financial reasons.

One example, Tobin said, was a 2011 agreement between East Naples fire and the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District to work together to provide fleet service maintenance to control expenses.

"They do it all the time, and they do it when its convenient for them," he said.

North Naples fire Commissioner Jim Burke said East Naples and Golden Gate voters may be trying to deliver a message by voting down the tax cap referendum. That message, he said, is for fire commissioners to explore all the options available to them.

"This is my realistic take on it," he said. "The two districts that were defeated, (consolidation) is going to be on their minds and we hope it will open up their heads and say we need to look at the options."

Those options will be discussed at a Fire Service Steering Committee meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at Golden Gate Fire Station 73, 14575 Collier Blvd.

Burke said chiefs and commissioners from all five independent fire districts have been invited to attend the meeting. The option of an administrative merger is likely to be discussed.

An administrative merger would allow the administrative team of one district to take over the operations of neighboring fire districts.

That type of merger, Burke said, would allow districts to operate similarly to how the Big Corkscrew Island and Immokalee fire districts are operating now. Commissioners in August agreed that Big Corkscrew Island's administrative team would act as the administrative team for Immokalee's fire district to help conserve money.

An administrative merger could mean eliminating administrative positions — like chiefs — and some fire districts. But Tobin said the only way to save money without disrupting service may be to cut administrative positions.

"Saving money is about elimination," he said.

Both Schuldt and Metzger said they are amenable to discussions about mergers, but said there needs to be a serious analysis of whether the savings can be achieved.

"I've said before that the millage increase and the consolidation are two different issues," Schuldt said. "We consolidate us and any other district today, and you see the numbers and we still have a deficit. We need a funding source."

Connect with reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna-buzzacco

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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