Guest column: Jim Burke ... North Naples Fire District – Public Input Wanted & Needed

By Jim Burke

Commissioner

North Naples Fire & Rescue District

On Feb. 8, the North Naples Fire District (NNFD) Board will conduct a workshop to discuss the financial options the district will face as it proceeds into the 2012-2013 budget year.

You may ask why I lead off this commentary with such an announcement. Good question.

A workshop such as this is of vital importance since 2012-13 will be a watershed year in the continuing saga of our five independent fire districts. That's because these districts will face a fifth consecutive year of declining property values and the resulting reductions in ad valorem tax collections. Faced with such doses of reality the five districts are scrambling to continue reducing operating costs and seeking new revenues. It has become, in some districts, a desperate, short-term attempt to survive.

On Jan. 31 three of the districts will ask their residents for approval to hike ad valorem millage rates. This is necessary because the independent fire districts are required to tax within a voter-approved cap. The NNFD, for example, is capped at 1 mil and has, for 50 years, functioned within that cap. Florida law allows the districts to tax, with voter approval, as high as 3.75 mils. One district will seek approval to go to 3.75 mils; another will ask for a 2.75 mil approval; the third will ask for 2 mils. All three districts are estimating (hoping?) that voter approval will get them through one more budget year without additional cuts in service. Not a pretty picture but based on past history, unavoidable.

The NNFD will, on Feb. 8, attempt to get ahead of the 2012-2013 budget planning process rather than waiting until the last minute and be forced into making desperate, defensive, service reduction decisions. With over 90,000 residents to protect and $20-plus million in property value, the NNFD is home to the county's largest concentration of high rises, assisted living centers, upscale residential and commercial property and, most importantly, human beings.

That explains why the NNFD has emerged as a multi-functional department providing fire, rescue and medical emergency services. Included are highly trained firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, hazardous material specialists, water rescuers, etc. All combine to provide our residents and businesses with a level of security unmatched within Collier County and, in my opinion, the state.

The challenge that we, the NNFD, face is not unlike that faced by our four neighboring districts. The reality is that the budget year 2007-2008 produced $27.8 million in ad valorem tax revenues. The budget year 2011-2012 produced $21.8 million. The residents of the NNFD are now paying $6 million less for these vital services than they were in 2007. We have managed our way through this five-year downturn without reducing service levels. Our ability to continue so doing is questionable.

With that in mind I have called for a series of "strategic plan" workshops in advance of the 2012-2013 budget cycle. The intent of this workshop approach is to identify and discuss the limited options that we face and what we can do to manage a sixth consecutive plunge in assessed property values. In other words, to get in front of the situation while there is still time to do something about it.

I want to make it clear that this flurry of defensive actions on the part of each of the five independent fire districts is not the long-term solution to the flaws in the overall delivery structure. Short-term, the goal is to get through one more budget year and perhaps begin the process of building a single-source, integrated and unified delivery system.

I want, therefore, to encourage the residents of the NNFD (and all other interested county residents) to attend this workshop, ask questions, express opinions and concerns and simply let us know what you expect from us as we move into a cloudy future. We very much want active public input.

The workshop will be held at the NNFD Administration Center, Veterans Park Station, 1885 Veterans Park Circle (off Immokalee Road just east of Goodlette–Frank Road). Call 597-3222 for confirmation and directions.

The opinions expressed above are mine and not, necessarily, those of my fellow commissioners.

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