Capri Fire District looks for ways to stave off possible takeover

Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent (2)
Members of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board listen to comments from residents about their fears regarding the future and control of Capri's fire district. At the meeting Friday are (from left) Chief Alan McLaughlin, acting Isles of Capri fire chief and chief of Ochopee Fire District, and board members Jim Hughes, Ted Decker and James Gault.

Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent (2) Members of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board listen to comments from residents about their fears regarding the future and control of Capri's fire district. At the meeting Friday are (from left) Chief Alan McLaughlin, acting Isles of Capri fire chief and chief of Ochopee Fire District, and board members Jim Hughes, Ted Decker and James Gault.

During a meeting at the Isles of Capri Fire Station Friday, resident Betty Moenkhaus asks Capri's Fire Advisory Board how it can help keep its Fire District intact.

During a meeting at the Isles of Capri Fire Station Friday, resident Betty Moenkhaus asks Capri's Fire Advisory Board how it can help keep its Fire District intact.

Chief Alan McLaughlin, acting Isles of Capri fire chief and chief of Ochopee Fire District, explains at an advisory board meeting Friday how Capriís Fire Department has become a perceived value to other districts. Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent

Chief Alan McLaughlin, acting Isles of Capri fire chief and chief of Ochopee Fire District, explains at an advisory board meeting Friday how Capriís Fire Department has become a perceived value to other districts. Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent

— Every time residents of Isles of Capri Fire Control District reach for self-governance, it drifts beyond their grasp.

On Friday, the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board learned from its residents that the East Naples Fire Department was considering offering services to Fiddler's Creek in exchange for tax dollars. The move would reduce revenues paid to Capri's Fire District. It also would jeopardize Capri's plan to become a Dependent Special District, an idea for autonomy discussed during a workshop in September.

At the workshop, a group of residents presented the advisory board with a draft ordinance that if approved could create a Dependent Special District.

That designation, as described under Florida Statute 189, would allow a board of residents to have control over budgeting and operating Capri's Fire District. Collier County's Board of County Commissioners, who currently makes decisions for the Fire District, would still have veto power over the board's decisions.

Fiddler's Creek – with Isles of Capri, Hammock Bay and the Marco Shores area – pay for services from Capri's Fire Department through funds raised from a Municipal Service Taxing Unit. Fiddler's Creek contributes approximately $120,000 to Capri's department or around 10 percent of its operating budget.

Capri's Fire Department has operated in the black for years, but recent property devaluations and the depletion of reserves suggest more, not less, funding will be required in the future. The East Naples Fire Department is already operating at a deficit, residents told the advisory board, and is looking for a way to improve its bottom line. Annexing Fiddler's Creek could do just that.

"Our board has been acting under the belief everything is status quo until we decide what we want to do," said Isles of Capri community member Matt Crowder, "but we've heard that East Naples (Fire Department) is aggressively pursuing taking over Fiddler's Creek."

John Rogers, a resident who worked on the draft ordinance for a Dependent Special District, said East Naples had allocated $10,000 for legal fees and $1,000 to go to the Florida State Legislature Workshop in November to discuss the Fiddler's Creek issue.

Chief Alan McLaughlin, acting Capri fire chief and chief of Ochopee Fire District, cautioned residents not to jump to conclusions.

"This is something that's been proposed but there's nothing in writing," he told the group. He said he had spoken the previous day to Collier County Emergency Management Director Dan Summers.

"Upper staff is aware of this, but can't respond until there is a proposal," McLaughlin said. In any case, he said, any decision would have to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners.

Residents said they feared for their solvency if Fiddler's Creek were removed from their MSTU. In addition, some residents felt Hammock Bay and condominiums on Mainsail Drive could be courted by East Naples and potentially lost to the district. Public speaker Betty Moenkhaus likened that prospect to a domino effect ultimately leaving only Isles of Capri residents to support the Fire Department.

Residents said they feared being forced by the county to consolidate with other districts especially if they were weakened by a change in funding.

Resident John Rogers urged the advisory board to become proactive with county staff and commissioners to thwart any change in the district's boundaries or operation before the Dependent Special District could be discussed. He said he was told by East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt that two county commissioners were favoring changes that could be detrimental to Capri residents.

"The problem as we see it," said Rogers on behalf of the residents, "we're tired of 'maybe we should do this' or 'that won't happen and we'll be OK.' We have specific proof there are people looking at our equipment and know we have no financial problems. We're a tempting dish."

McLaughlin agreed that Capri's Fire Department could look good to other districts.

"You have to remember East Naples went back to its district and asked for .5 mils (increase in taxes) and they were voted down, so they're basically looking for income. You have value and they need it."

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