By Duane Billington
Golden Gate Estates
The Daily News Jan. 15 editorial recommends a "no" vote on all three fire district millage cap increase referendums. Your reasoning is that the negative votes may prompt the districts to consolidate.
You state, "The Golden Gate department has done an especially good job with efficiencies and had the wisdom to front-load its tax request with a sunset provision, endings the tax cap increase after five years " Yet, you recommend a "no" vote.
First of all it isn't a tax request; it's a millage cap increase request. The district needs to raise the cap so it can collect the same amount of tax dollars as it collected in 2009. There is no plan to increase taxes. Falling property values have resulted in declining revenues. Loss of these revenues may result in layoffs and the closing of a station.
Your shotgun approach to this will create too much collateral damage. Your recommendation could result in the property and physical well-being of the residents of the Golden Gate Fire District being put at risk. Closed stations and reductions in manpower equate to longer response times.
What sense does it make to punish the district that is doing things right?
Golden Gate has been proactive in wanting to consolidate. Two years ago the North and East Naples districts were contacted and asked to consider consolidation. North considered, there were meetings and their board ultimately rejected consolidation. East Naples rejected consolidation and wouldn't meet.
Immokalee's fire district is currently under the operational control of Chief Rita Greenberg from the Big Corkscrew Island District. Voter approval of the Immokalee cap increase (not tax, cap) will allow that district to avoid revenues dropping below previous levels. Approval will bring Immokalee's millage to the same 3.75 as Big Corkscrew.
The current disparity in revenue caps is a stumbling block for consolidation. A common revenue cap, with the existing combined operation, along with passage of the consolidation legislation working through the legislature will enable Immokalee and Big Corkscrew to quickly consolidate if that is the expressed desire of the voters of the two districts. A "no" vote will certainly delay if not negate that from happening.
A recent analysis of six local fire departments — municipal and independent — shows the Rita Greenberg-led Big Corkscrew Island and the Golden Gate districts are the least costly to the taxpayers. The two highest-cost departments are North and East Naples.
For instance, the average 2010/2011 per person total compensation when you combine North and East is $140,496 each. The average when you combine Big Corkscrew and Golden Gate is $78,549. The difference is $61,947. Take that times the 230 members of North and East and you get a potential first-year savings of $14,247,810. This could happen without reducing services if the lower wage structure were adopted. Another way of looking at it is East and North wasted 14,247,810 taxpayer dollars last year.
However, if consolidation resulted in a rounding up of wages and benefits for Big Corkscrew and Golden Gate to match the higher wages of North and East the result would be increased costs of $5,823,018. This would be a swing of $20,070,828 in the wrong direction from the $14,247,810 potential savings.
The East Naples district has a long way to go in reducing costs. The firefighters have done their part with voluntary concessions. Now the brass needs to do its part. They need to reduce the wages of their upper level personnel by at least another 20 percent below 2012 adjustments to be in line with the high-end wages as reported by the International City-County Management Association and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A "no" vote on East Naples' referendum is warranted.
Billington is a local civic activist, past candidate for fire commissioner and founding member of the Collier Taxpayer Action Board. He has spoken about fire issues at district, County Commission and legislative delegation meetings.