Just a year ago, consolidation with another fire district was the last thing Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board wanted to consider. On Friday, consolidation was back on the table.
In the next month, residents of Capri and communities on Collier Boulevard within the fire district's boundaries will discuss possible futures including consolidation with East Naples Fire District or another dependent district in the county.
For speakers attending Friday's meeting, three objectives remained constant: maintaining a satisfactory level of service, preserving the department's unique identity and controlling costs that affect millage rates.
East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt and Jeff Page, newly elected East Naples fire commissioner, attended the meeting. Len Price, administrator from Collier County, explained how the county would like to see Capri proceed. Price said commissioners will be putting Capri's fire issues on their Jan. 8 agenda.
Capri's fire district is administered through Collier County's Board of County Commissioners as a dependent district. The district is funded through a Municipal Service Taxing Unit. The millage rate is set by residents of the district through referendum.
Talk of consolidation of the county's dependent fire districts has been an issue in the past; however, commissioners agreed to give Capri's fire district time to consider its options for the future.
Commissioners will not expect a decision in January, Price said, but hope to see how far the fire board progressed in obtaining public input and investigating alternatives. Capri's board needs to complete the information by Dec. 21 to allow the county to it into commissioners' hands, she said.
Price asked the board and residents to look at all solutions no matter how "off the wall" they may be. Commissioners will be looking for efforts that will lead to a plan, she said, and will be expecting measurable milestones.
Capri board member Kevin Walsh was reluctant to start afresh. He said a citizen group had investigated several possibilities that should be considered including administration by the City of Marco Island or becoming a largely autonomous dependent special district.
John Rogers, a member of the citizen group, agreed that prior investigations should be included as alternatives.
"We could go back to the way it was with our own chief," Rogers said, "or similar to the way it was but separate from the county." In both cases, he hoped the new plan would include increased authority for Capri's board.
Ochopee Fire Chief Alan McLaughlin and interim chief for Capri explained losses in taxable property values have resulted in lost revenues for all fire districts.
"This is a global issue. We're all feeling it," he said. "It's the people's choice: pay less for less service or pay more for the service we enjoyed in the good years."
In the past five years, Capri's millage rate for fire services increased incrementally from 1.2 to 2 mils. Surpluses the department enjoyed from past years have been depleted over time to cover costs.
The ideal, according to board member Jim Gault, would be autonomy with the department under fire board management, but he conceded that would mean raising the millage rate.
That may be difficult with three board members, Ted Decker, Kevin Walsh and Chairman Joseph Langkawel, leaving the board. Decker and Langkawel have served for six years. Walsh has been on the board for two years. Two applications for new board members have been received by commissioners and will require their appointment.
Long-time resident Bill Hamlin said residents need more meetings to come to any conclusions. He also suggested the board consider all the district's assets in their planning.
"We need to point out graphically our dowry," Hamlin said. "We bring a lot to the table and should use it as leverage."
The meeting concluded and the board set dates for three workshops scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thurs., Nov. 29, 1 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 14, and 5 p.m. on Thurs., Dec. 20. All workshops will be held in Isles of Capri's Community Center, 338 Capri Blvd.