Just in time for Valentine's Day, two of Collier County's fire departments believe life would be better with the other.
The East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District and the Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District both signed a letter of intent to merge this week.
And while there are still some things to iron out — including the leadership of the new merged department — both sides are convinced the move will be in the best interest of East Naples and Golden Gate taxpayers.
The idea of merging fire districts has been a topic debated in Collier County for decades.
"We're making history here," Golden Gate Fire Commissioner Kevin Gerrity said. "It's been such a long slog."
The East Naples Fire commissioners approved a letter of intent to merge on Tuesday by a 5-0 vote. On Wednesday, the Golden Gate Fire commissioners voted 2-1 to approve it, with Commissioner Chuck McMahon voting against the merger.
However, Golden Gate commissioners made a couple of changes to the letter of intent, removing a provision that would make East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt the chief of the merged department and Golden Gate Assistant Chief Nolan Sapp the assistant chief.
Gerrity said the change was made so that the joint board could name the chief and assistant chief together at a joint meeting in March. He said there was no need to cement it in the letter of intent and that Golden Gate commissioners had no problem with the arrangement.
As a result, the letter with the changes will go back to the East Naples Fire commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 26 for their approval. If they approve it, the two boards will have a joint meeting to finalize some issues and work toward putting the merger in front of the Florida legislators and the voters for their approval, Gerrity said.
Officials on both sides said they are optimistic a deal can be done that will be acceptable to the voters. In 2010, more than 72 percent of Collier voters said in a nonbinding straw ballot vote that they would support merging the seven Collier fire districts into one provided it were more efficient and led to a better use of tax dollars.
The Golden Gate, East Naples merger would be the first formal merger between two Collier County fire departments. In 2011, Big Corkscrew Island fire began providing administrative and operational leadership for the Immokalee fire district, however, the two departments remain independent.
Both East Naples and Golden Gate have a millage rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value, so there will be no increase in taxes for residents of either district.
In addition, Jeff Page, chairman of the East Naples fire commissioners, said there are many reasons the merger will work. In addition to East Naples needing an assistant chief and Golden Gate needing a chief, East Naples doesn't have a ladder truck and Golden Gate does, and they are on the edge of the district.
"We're in need of a water truck. We don't have one, Golden Gate does. We have a shop to work on engines, Golden Gate doesn't," he said. "It's the perfect marriage really."
Schuldt said the overarching goals of the merger are to maintain or enhance existing services and reduce or contain future costs.
"We will be able to streamline our business models and see some financial savings and efficiencies," he said.
Gerrity also touted the need to save money for the Golden Gate fire department, which has about $400,000 in debt service payments on an $11.11 million budget.
"We have a looming financial crisis coming to this district," he said. "We have debt and we have been able to pay the interest only on that debt. The previous fire commissions have obligated money for things this department couldn't afford. We will be able to streamline, save the taxpayers money and put us on the path to fiscal soundness."
The key to making the merger work is the commitment of parties on both sides, Page said.
"I think what's always been a problem in the past is to ask the fire chiefs to work on this themselves and it was not in their best interest to do it," he said. "We came together, a group of us, and started thinking that the elected officials could get this done. This is the furthest we have ever been with the project.
"We are going to do it as fast as humanly possible, but we don't want to blow this."