Fire consolidation talks heating up for Golden Gate, East Naples

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

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

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

Robert Metzger

Robert Metzger

Kingman Schuldt was named active chief of the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District on Sept. 27 after Fire Chief Keith Teague retired.

Photo by AARON HALE // Buy this photo

Kingman Schuldt was named active chief of the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District on Sept. 27 after Fire Chief Keith Teague retired.

About three years after a majority Collier County voters expressed an interest in merging their fire departments, two are ready to take the first steps toward that goal.

Commissioners from East Naples Fire and Golden Gate Fire will hold a special meeting Tuesday to discuss combining some resources.

East Naples Fire Commissioner Brian Cross said the meeting will be taking the step toward full consolidation.

"I think we can come up with an interlocal agreement on some of the operational issues," he said. "Right now, we have a fire chief and they don't. I think we are going to do everything we can to pool our resources and see some cost savings."

Golden Gate Fire Chief Bob Metzger announced last week he was leaving after five years to take a job to take a post in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Golden Gate Fire Commissioner Kevin Gerrity said last week the timing could not be better. He supports a proposal that would allow Golden Gate and East Naples to pool resources, as well as share a fire chief and perhaps splitting the cost of that salary.

East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt makes $120,000 a year, according to a public records request. Metzger's salary is $127,200, according to a public records request.Golden Gate Fire Commissioner David Stedman said he is pro-consolidation. He said if it is good for the taxpayers of Golden Gate, it is something that will happen.

He also said it is something taxpayers want.

"We have more informed constituents. In this last election, ... we saw more pro-consolidation fire commissioners elected to office," he said. "The voters understand that there is a fiscal reality that things cannot continue as they have."

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 better use of tax dollars.

Cross said if the departments moved toward consolidation, those cost savings could mean that the departments would not have to go to taxpayers asking for an increase in the tax rate cap. Both East Naples and Golden Gate saw voters turn down proposals to increase its tax rate last year.

Stedman said one of the positives working in the departments' favor as they approach consolidation is that both have the same millage rate, which is $1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value.

"No changes in taxes are necessary," he said. "That hasn't always been the case when we have talked with other departments."

Cross said in addition to talk about sharing administrators, the two fire departments are going to have to discuss their debt. Golden Gate has about $400,000 in debt service payments as part of its $11.11 million budget, while East Naples has a little more than $150,000 in debt service payments with a $14 million budget.

"Golden Gate has more debt than we do, although we have some. That will be something we need to address because I am not going to ask East Naples taxpayers to assume that debt," he said. "If this does not make financial sense, it's not going to pass."

But Stedman said Golden Gate, even with its debt, has managed to live within its means and pay down its debt without the benefits of reserves, which other departments, including East Naples, have.

"We have not had layoffs. We have not had to close stations. We have lived within our means," he said.

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