As the discourse and disharmony over fire district consolidation burns like a brushfire around Collier County, a smaller debate smolders within the confines of City Hall.
It pits the city’s fire chief against a councilman threatening to douse his requests for millions of dollars in men and equipment.
And it could just flare up into a larger conflagration that would have implications for the broader questions surrounding the future of fire protection around the county.
At Monday’s City Council budget workshop, Fire Chief Steve McInerny will make his case for improvements to the city’s fire fighting arsenal.
The big ticket item is a $350,000 fire boat that, in conjunction with additional underground water lines, can provide water pressure that is currently lacking in some areas.
McInerny says low water pressure plagues Port Royal and other parts of the city and if not addressed could prevent new homes from being built. It also could affect the city’s ISO rating, a calculation used by insurance companies when setting rates for fire insurance.
He cites a May 30 letter from Thomas Kirwin, deputy chief financial officer for the state, who told Mayor John Sorey, “Failure to meet recommended fire flow requirements could have a negative impact on Naples’ ISO rating which could cause an increase in commercial and/or residential insurance premiums.”
Kirwin answers to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who oversees the insurance industry in the state, McInerny points out. “I don’t think I would dismiss that,” he said.
But dismiss is exactly what City Councilman Doug Finlay does with talk of an ISO change leading to higher insurance rates. Naples has an ISO rating of 2, one step below the best possible rating of 1. Even if Naples is downgraded to a 3 or a 4 it would not impact residents because insurance companies look at a band of scores as being equivalent, he said. Communities in the range of 1 through 4 or even 1 through 5 get the same rates, according to Finlay’s findings.
In addition to the fire boat McInerny is seeking next year, Finlay takes issue with items in the chief’s budget projections for the next few years. Money to replace the fire station next to City Hall is one example. “That station is 17 years old. Only in Naples would you tear down a 17-year-old fire station,” he said.
Finlay insists he isn’t against the fire department. He’s voted to add firefighters and equipment in the past.
But this year’s capital spending request is too much, he believes.
“Capital spending ends up being operational spending,” he said, foreshadowing an even bigger showdown between the councilman and the fire chief later in the summer when McInerny will press for up to 12 new firefighters to bolster fire protection in the eastern part of the city where hundreds of properties worth millions of dollars have been annexed in recent years.
McInerny and Finlay agree on at least one point _ the city hasn’t made good on its word to provide superior fire protection in those areas.
When the city brought places like Moorings Park and Horseshoe Drive into its borders, it assumed the responsibility to provide fire protection there.
But McInerny points out that the city hasn’t added any firefighters or stations. To respond, the city has to send trucks from downtown, by City Hall or from its other station just east of U.S. 41 at 26th Avenue North. Doing so depletes the resources available in the heart of the city.
“The city has been cherry picking the best areas (for annexation) but not providing for the public safety needs,” he said.
McInerny’s answer is to add 12 firefighters to be assigned to the existing fire station at Naples Airport. That station is currently only equipped to answer calls on the airport itself.
Finlay has a different idea, one that flirts with the issue on every fire chief and fire commissioner’s mind around the county _ consolidation.
“The North Naples Fire Department and East Naples Fire Department lost the ad valorem revenue from those (annexed) areas. That tax revenue, along with fire service, shifted to the City of Naples. With more city tax revenue and an increased service area one might assume it makes sense to add more firefighters and equipment to the city’s operating and capital expenses. But does it?” Finlay asks.
Instead of adding firefighters, the city should reach agreements with fire departments in North Naples and East Naples to allow them to again be the first responder in the annexed areas. The city might have to pay the two departments but the cost would be less than hiring new firefighters and paying them in perpetuity, he said.
The city might mitigate the cost by offering to take on first response in other areas outside the city limits, such as the Naples Zoo, Finlay proposes. North Naples and East Naples already have fully equipped stations near the annexed areas, he notes. “Annexed areas don’t need more firefighters or trucks or fire stations. Those assets are already there.”
McInerny realizes his request for equipment and men may strike some as excessive and his warnings about water pressure seem dire. But they are the result of years of underfunding the fire department, he maintains. During the years when the fire department was unified with the police department into one public safety organization, the fire department suffered, McInerny said. “The fire department had no voice at the table, no direct contact with the city manager. We haven’t even kept pace with growth.”
Hired in 2009, McInerny sees it as his duty to call attention to the situation and propose solutions. “It’s unfortunate we have so many problems to fix. It was pay now or pay later. Pay later has arrived,” he said.
Finlay says the city should take a lesson from the predicament. “This entire issue should serve as a red flag with regards to any future city annexations,” he said.