ISLE OF CAPRI — Isles of Capri residents struggled with the best way to preserve their fire department’s neighborhood service and local identity Thursday at a fire advisory board meeting. They feared a possible consolidation of Collier County’s emergency and fire services would decimate their department.
Isles of Capri residents pay for their hometown fire district as a Municipal Service Taxing Unit, providing salaries, buying equipment and supplying benefits for its firefighters. It is one of two such districts in the county. Ochopee also is an MSTU and the largest district in Collier County covering approximately 1,100 square miles.
The Isles of Capri Fire Rescue District is small, covering approximately 20 square miles. It includes the Isles of Capri community, condominiums and Hammock Bay gated community on Mainsail Drive, the Marco Executive Airport and the front portion of Fiddler’s Creek gated community.
In a 4-0 vote, with one member absent, the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board decided to investigate dissolving its relationship with the Board of Collier County Commissioners. In that decision, it also would investigate establishing its MSTU under the governance of Marco Island’s City Council.
“This is a unique community, a family, close-knit,” said Debbie O’Dean, public speaker at the meeting. “People make trips to the fire station to visit or bring cookies. We’ll lose that connection if we don’t keep what we have.”
On Feb. 3, the board received an investigative report by a citizen group that considered options for the department’s future. The report recommended the fire advisory board consider transferring the MSTU to Marco Island. That decision was based on continuity of service and future ability to determine operations for the department.
Distrust of county motives also drove the recommendation. In November, the department’s fire chief was fired, igniting a groundswell of opposition from residents. Ochopee Fire Chief Alan McLaughlin was appointed acting chief after the incident and was present at Thursday’s fire advisory board meeting.
Other incidents, including a recent decision by the county to auction the department’s brush fire truck without notifying McLaughlin, drew fire from those present at the meeting. Resident Matt Crowder called it an end-run around the fire advisory board.
Other members pointed directly to Dan Summers, director of Collier County’s Bureau of Emergency Services, as the one responsible for ignoring the community’s wishes.
“Collier County has shown us their blatant disregard for our fire advisory board and our department,” said Jeri Neuhaus, member of the investigation committee and resident of Mainsail Drive.
After discussion of the brush truck’s high cost of maintenance, the fire advisory board voted 4-0 to dispose of it through auction or other means and retrofit an existing pickup truck to act in the same capacity.
Advisory board chairman Joseph Langkawel said moving the district’s MSTU to Marco Island’s City Council raised “1,000 questions” including ownership of equipment, the role of the fire advisory board, salaries and benefits for Isles of Capri firefighters and legal boundaries.
The board appointed member Kevin Walsh to begin investigating a relationship with Marco Island’s Fire Department and Marco Island City Council. The fire advisory board’s chairman was asked to draft a letter to county commissioners explaining the board’s intent.
At its Feb. 6 meeting, Marco Island’s City Council appointed Councilor Larry Magel to act as liaison if Capri’s fire advisory board decided to pursue the MSTU relationship.
The next meeting of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., March 15, in the Isles of Capri Fire Station at 175 Capri Boulevard.