Fire officials: Economic downturn led to fiscal mess, need for millage increase

East Naples-Golden Gate Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt.

Photo by Aaron Hale

East Naples-Golden Gate Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt.

Video from NBC-2

— The unforeseen dip in the economy is largely to blame for the situation that has led East Naples fire department to propose a millage increase, fire officials said Wednesday.

Asked by citizens why the department didn't do more years ago to avoid its current situation marked by firefighter layoffs and service reductions, East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said government entities across the country were not wasteful. But, he said, they failed to see the coming downturn.

"Back in the mid to late 2000s, everyone was living very well; the economy was taking off," he said. "Many government organizations were taking in lot of money. What did they do? They spent."

The question came during a town hall meeting held by the department Wednesday evening to educate and answer questions about the millage referendum, which will appear on the Jan. 31 presidential primary ballot. Only three people attended the meeting, along with two media outlets, including the Daily News.

Two more meetings are slated for 6 p.m. on Jan. 17 and Jan. 24 at the Fire Code Official's Office, 2700 N. Horseshoe Drive.

The millage referendum would boost the cap on property taxes from $1.50 to $2 per $1,000 of taxable property value. Fire officials say the referendum — which would be the first since voters approved an increase to 1.5 percent in 1983 — is needed to staunch future losses to public safety.

Declining property values, which have fallen 33 percent since 2008, have taken a toll on the East Naples fire department. A balanced budget was achieved through cuts and service reductions, including fewer firefighters per shift, fewer training positions and fewer open fire stations, depending on staffing. The department also approved pay cuts, increased benefit contributions for firefighters and dipped into its reserves.

"It is simply our belief that this is not a sustainable trend to continue on," Schuldt said. "We're not trying to make money, we're trying to stabilize it."

Schuldt said he wasn't disappointed by the turnout.

"I would have liked to see more people interested, but I am not disappointed in the fact that there are only three people here," he said after the meeting.

Rosalie Rhodes said she attended the meeting because she's been an active proponent of the East Naples fire department and believes its services are invaluable. She said she was pleased with the answers given and believes the referendum is needed because the department saves lives.

"I think that as a community, we need to support our fire service just as our fire service has to support us," she said.

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