East Naples fire district OKs consolidation with Golden Gate, looks at Isles of Capri merger

East Naples Fire Rescue District and Golden Gate Fire Rescue District battle a house fire near the intersection of Golden Gate Parkway and Interstate 75. Lexey Swall/Staff

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East Naples Fire Rescue District and Golden Gate Fire Rescue District battle a house fire near the intersection of Golden Gate Parkway and Interstate 75. Lexey Swall/Staff

If the door to fire department consolidation has been cracked for years, the Golden Gate and East Naples fire departments are ready to kick it wide open.

Tuesday evening, the East Naples fire commissioners signed off on an interlocal agreement with the Golden Gate fire department on a functional consolidation.

David Stedman, a Golden Gate fire commissioner, said the consolidation is off to a great start because it is already saving the taxpayers in both districts money — about a half million dollars annually.

“On their side, they saved hiring an assistant chief. On our side, we saved hiring a chief,” he said of the two positions, whose salaries and benefits add up to about $500,000. “My main focus is to do what’s best for my constituents. I am not looking to change the fire districts countywide. But we want to play a part as it relates to the benefit of the Golden Gate taxpayers.

“These efforts are in line with that goal.”

The merger, which Golden Gate fire commissioners already approved, will not cause either department to lose its identity, East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said.

“We want to work together,” he said. “I think our commissioners want to be leaders in the consolidation effort, which is why we are taking this proactive approach.”

Some of the departments’ consolidation efforts include:

The East Naples fire marshals are providing oversight to Golden Gate’s fire marshals;

High speed Internet is being installed so East Naples and Golden Gate’s systems can be accessed from either department’s headquarters;

Schuldt will split his time between East Naples and Golden Gate, overseeing the administrations of both organizations;

Golden Gate Assistant Chief Nolan Sapp will oversee operations at both departments.

In addition, Schuldt said the departments will look for efficiencies, including in fleet operations and facilities maintenance. They will also look at common boarders to determine if, for example, there is an area of East Naples’ district where it would be faster for Golden Gate to respond and vice versa.

“It’s a good thing for us,” East Naples Fire Commission Chairman Jeff Page said.

The consolidation is purely functional at this point. Complete consolidation will have to be approved by voters and will be on the ballot in 2014, Schuldt said.

“If this goes the way it does and pans out correctly, this will be the first time the voters will be able to make their opinions known and have them count,” Stedman said. “Ultimately, they are the ones who will make this happen.”

In 2010, more than 72 percent of Collier voters said in a nonbinding straw ballot they would support merging the seven Collier fire districts into one provided it was more efficient and led to better use of tax dollars.

But East Naples is not only looking at consolidating with Golden Gate. On April 15, Page sent a letter to County Manager Leo Ochs proposing that East Naples provide a “full service fire based delivery system for the Isles of Capri Fire District.”

“We want to eventually bring them into the district. We are not looking at long-term management,” Page said. “We’ll see what happens. If it works for them, good. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.”

Under the proposal, East Naples fire would absorb the Isle of Capri staff and assets and provide services to the Isles of Capri district. Isles of Capri residents would see their millage rate drop from 2 mills to 1.5 mills — a decrease of 50 centers per $1,000 of taxable value.

The county is reviewing the proposal with Isles of Capri fire commissioners, Ochs said.

Next week, East Naples fire department officials and fire commissioners will meet with the Isle of Capri fire commissioners to answer questions about the proposal.

“I have been receiving emails from residents already,” Page said.

The meeting will be held at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, at the Isles of Capri Fire Station, 338 Capri Blvd.

Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala said at Tuesday’s commission meeting she would like to see the proposal brought before commissioners before they take a summer recess so they can plan for the 2013-14 budget.

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