Guest column: The other side of the Big Corkscrew fire district story

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By Janet Vasey

North Naples

Adam DiSarro’s Commentary on Dec. 21 was a masterpiece of misinformation. As president of the Big Corkscrew Professional Fire Fighters Union and a public servant he should know better.

DiSarro castigates Mike Ramsey, president of the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association (GGEACA), for his Dec. 18 commentary suggesting a merger between Big Corkscrew Island Fire District (BCIFD) and the East Naples/Golden Gate merging Fire Districts (EN/GG FD).

Ramsey’s arguments were basically that, in the BCIFD rural area:

wildfires are a major concern and BCIFD can’t fight them alone;

EN/GG FD has a need to fight wildfires too (and has water tankers);

EN/GG FD is saving money through consolidation;

BCIFD is spending substantially more money than it collects;

therefore, a consolidation of these fire districts should be explored to combine their common rural and wildfire mission (and equipment), and to save money.

Ramsey’s reasoning was logical and the arguments well-developed. DiSarro unloads on Ramsey with sarcasm and misrepresentations. Then he repeatedly endorses BCIFD’s financial stability, assuring everyone that Big Corkscrew Island Fire District is financially sound and stable.

Not so.

BCIFD is in a precarious financial condition. Since 2011, they have been spending substantially more money than they collect from recurring revenue sources. They received a SAFER grant that provided an additional $600,000 over two years and was used to rehire employees who had been laid off. The last of the grant funding was spent in fiscal year 2013.

In FY14, without the SAFER grant, BCIFD’s revenue from property taxes and other recurring sources is $3.2 million, but their recurring expenses, for personnel, operating expenses and minor capital costs totals $3.9 million. That’s an imbalance of $700,000 in one year.

BCIFD is using reserves — just as Ramsey stated — to cover those excess costs. At the current level of expenditures, BCIFD is not financially stable, as DiSarro maintains, since reserves will be depleted unless revenues are substantially increased. Without grants, revenue increases or reserves, the current level of fire service expenditure is unsustainable and current personnel levels cannot be maintained.

It should be remembered that in 2010, when voters were asked whether they wanted fire consolidation if it would “improve efficiency and promote a more cost effective use of tax dollars,” 70 percent of BCIFD voters said they wanted fire consolidation.

Instead of following the public will toward consolidation, BCIFD commissioners have sought approval for a Certificate Of Public Convenience and Necessity (COPCN) to provide their own emergency medical, Advanced Life Support (ALS) paramedic response to 911 calls in the BCIFD area. Currently they respond to medical emergencies providing Basic Life Support.

Collier County EMS already provides ALS emergency medical response within the county. Everyone pays for this service through property taxes. If the BCIFD application for a COPCN to provide additional Advanced Life Support paramedic service is approved, there will be additional one-time startup costs and annual recurring costs, adding to the financial shortages.

County Ordinance 04-12 states that a COPCN shall not be granted unless each of four conditions is met. BCIFD will have difficulty establishing the third condition _ that they have “an adequate revenue base for the proposed service.” The Collier Board of County Commissioners will decide whether to approve the COPCN application or not on Jan. 14.

As Ramsey stated, BCIFD received voter approval to increase the millage rate from 2 to 3.75 mills. They are currently taxing at 3.5 mills — a 75 percent increase. This 3.5 millage rate, just for Big Corkscrew Island fire service, is a considerable tax burden, especially when you consider that Collier County is currently taxing only 3.6 mills for all county services, including sheriff, roads, libraries, parks, EMS, etc. No wonder Ramsey and the Civic Association are looking for a more efficient fire service.

It is unclear whether BCIFD taxpayers want additional ALS service from their fire district (the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association does not support it), but it IS clear that 70 percent want consolidation. Ramsey and the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association are pursuing what the voters said they wanted, consolidation and efficient fire service. DiSarro is entitled to voice his opinion, but as a public servant, and leader of his Fire Fighters union, he should strive to be more knowledgeable, more accurate in his statements and less snarky in his personal attacks on members of the public.

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