EAST NAPLES — Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala remembers when a resident of Fiddler's Creek contacted her about the higher millage rate he paid for fire protection.
"He asked me why he was paying two mils and his neighbor across the street was only paying 1.5 mils. I immediately understood his point," she said Thursday.
The area now developed as the gated community of Fiddler's Creek is located along Collier Boulevard between Marco Island and U.S. 41. It also is divided by two fire districts. Their boundary runs approximately one mile into the development. Isles of Capri Fire Control District serves the front 277 homes. East Naples Fire Control District is responsible for the remaining homes and undeveloped areas.
On Oct. 25, Fiala told Isles of Capri resident Jim Hughes it was possible Fiddler's Creek would change its fire district affiliation. Hughes is a member of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board appointed by Collier County's Board of County Commissioners, but he insisted his discussion with Fiala was as a resident and not in any official capacity.
Hughes was concerned the loss of Fiddler's Creek would result in approximately $120,000 per year in lost tax revenue or about 10 percent of Capri's fire department operating budget.
Fiala said she could understand both points of view.
On one hand, Capri's Fire Department would be negatively impacted by the loss of revenue, she said. On the other, residents of Fiddler's Creek are saying they're sorry about the department's financial problems, but why should they be asked to pay more?
East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt confirmed that he had been approached by residents in Fiddler's Creek. While speaking at a homeowners' association meeting in March, Schuldt said he was sought out by residents interested in joining his district.
Becoming part of the East Naples district could have advantages for Fiddler's Creek, he said. Fire or EMS services from Isles of Capri travel 4.75 miles to reach the Fiddler's Creek entrance. A portion of the trip requires traveling a two-lane, winding road. East Naples could respond in less than half the time from Station 23, traveling 1.7 miles on a four-lane highway. Station 23 is located on Collier Boulevard across from Naples Outlet Center.
"We offer the same coverage," he said.
Schuldt said Fiddler's Creek residents spoke publicly at his district's Board of Fire Commissioners meeting expressing a desire to join East Naples. The board voted 5-0 in favor of assisting them through the legislative process.
Residents have the right to petition the state to join the department's geographic boundaries, he said. The East Naples fire board approved $11,000 in its budget to assist Fiddler's Creek with legal fees and travel to Tallahassee to speak with state legislators.
A straw ballot was sent to the 277 affected residents in Fiddler's Creek earlier this year. Of the respondents, only a handful said "no," Schuldt said.
Fiala told Hughes Capri's Fire Control District may have little say in maintaining its boundaries if residents in Fiddler's Creek decide to move their tax dollars to East Naples. A similar event occurred when an affluent Golden Gate community asked to be annexed by North Naples Fire District. Hughes said residents also were concerned that communities within Capri's district in Marco Shores, including the high-rises at Hammock Bay, would follow the lead of Fiddler's Creek. The Marco Shores area is south of Fiddler's Creek near the intersection of Collier Boulevard and Mainsail Drive. Fiala said she couldn't see that happening.
"I have friends in Hammock Bay who say: 'Why would we do a thing like that? We're just across the street from Isles of Capri.'" She also noted Capri's Fire Department has the equipment to handle high-rise emergencies. East Naples does not.
Fiala did offer Hughes a suggestion for handling the financial loss if Fiddler's Creek is annexed by East Naples.
On Oct. 23, the Board of County Commissioners approved a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant to hire four firefighters for Capri's fire district. The grant funds four positions through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for two years with a two-year renewal option. That money, Fiala said, could offset the Fiddler's Creek loss.
Over the past year, residents of Isles of Capri have been confounded by structuring their fire department to weather future financial and operations problems while remaining as independent as possible. In February, a group of residents drafted a proposal recommending Capri's fire advisory board talk to the City of Marco Island and possibly merge with its fire department.
Marco Island City Council Chairman Larry Magel confirmed that talks between the City of Marco Island and Capri had ceased. Hughes said the merger placing Capri's fire department under Marco Island's City Council would result in less control for Capri and that was not the direction residents wanted to go.
At a meeting in September and on Oct. 19, Capri's advisory board discussed a draft ordinance that would designate it as a Dependent Special District under Florida State Statute. On Thursday, Hughes said he did not believe an advisory board could invest enough hours in the fire department to make the Dependent Special District work.