MARCO ISLAND — Longterm, the writing is on the wall. The Isles of Capri Fire/Rescue Department will be consolidated with the East Naples department, and the separate Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board will be no more. But the fast track to immediate consolidation just got a little slower.
When the Capri advisory board met Thursday afternoon, chairman Jim Hughes expected they were being put out of business right away. That was what Collier County Commissioners had decreed in their meeting Tuesday, directing county staff to move directly to merging the two departments, without the interim step of an inter-local agreement, with the East Naples unit taking over operations, but maintaining two separate entities. That is the situation with the merger of East Naples and the Golden Gate fire department, which is currently underway. But the department’s days as a separate entity will be extended, perhaps for another year or more, they found out at the meeting.
“There was a misunderstanding on what can be done,” Len Golden Price, administrator of the County’s Administrative Services Division, told the Capri board at the firehouse on Capri Boulevard. They can’t absorb us into theirs without action of the legislature. We’re back to an inter-local agreement.”
The millage rate that Capri residents will pay for fire protection services, which had been slated to jump to 2 mills, was also reopened.
“The board motion wasn’t clear. We’re going back to the drawing board,” said Price.
“What about guaranteed employment (for current Isles of Capri firefighters and employees)?” asked Hughes. That has been a point of protracted discussion in all the talks on consolidation. Both Price and Capri board member Matt Crowder assured the interests of the firefighters were being given all possible consideration.
“We can’t guarantee it, but hiring preference for your firefighters for East Naples,” will be given, said Price. “There will be an opportunity for our folks to apply for these positions prior to a (general help wanted) request going out. I’ve asked EMS to freeze hiring, in case some firefighters want to go that way.”
“We are really pushing hard to get the best deal for the firefighters,” said Crowder, adding there had been a number of comments and rumors to the contrary. “I believe there will be a viable option for all Isles of Capri firefighters.”
East Naples fire commission chairman Jeff Page and Kingman Schuldt, the East Naples fire chief who is also acting chief of Golden Gate until those departments complete their consolidation, and barring personnel changes will one day be chief of the overall department that includes Isles of Capri, also spoke to the group. There is no guarantee a 1.5 millage rate will be sufficient, they said. The Capri fire board plans to review their budget and finances, and see if it is possible to retain the 1.5 millage rate, or perhaps settle on a figure between 1.5 and 2.
Outside the meeting, Hughes expressed his concern that consolidation would inevitably lead to a reduction in the level of fire protection in the area currently served by the Isles of Capri department.
“This will hurt the people in the district. There’s no way they can maintain the same level of service.” He said of the fire board “we’re not a committee with power. No governmental body has to pay attention to what we say.”
During public comment, John Rogers and Jeri Neuhaus urged the board to write to the county commission, saying they had been assured there would be more public input sought, including a referendum, before moving ahead with consolidation, but the Capri board declined to issue an official letter.
“That’s all in the past. We’re going to move on,” said Hughes.
“Every politician for the last 100 years says we want public input,” said board member Ray Kane. “We had a vote. Everybody had their say. They got that input, said thank you very much, and moved ahead.”