Commissioners vote to merge East Naples, Isles of Capri fire districts

 Isles of Capris fire department. Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent

Isles of Capris fire department. Cheryl Ferrara/Eagle Correspondent

Collier County commissioners voted Tuesday to consolidate the East Naples and Isles of Capri fire districts, a move that averts a tax hike, but could end in some — or all — Isles of Capri firefighters losing their jobs.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Georgia Hiller absent, came three weeks after the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory board voted 3-2 to reject the consolidation. However, county officials have said the only way to avoid a tax increase would be to consolidate services. East Naples’ fire millage is $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, while Isles of Capri is $2 per $1,000.

Isles of Capri Fire District Lt. George Lara, who spoke on behalf of the district’s nine firefighters, questioned the merger at this time, noting East Naples and Golden Gate fire departments are at the start of initiating a merger. Lara pointed out that Isles of Capri firefighters know the neighborhood and the residents — and residents know their firefighters.

“This merger means losing the staff you have now,” he said, noting it was all for a .5 millage reduction. “You will lose every one of us. Yes, none of us are paramedics, but we know what we’re doing and we’ve got fine medics.”

The Isles of Capri Fire Department also serves Mainsail Drive residents and part of the Fiddler’s Creek development, which represents 12 percent of the district. Fiddler’s Creek wanted a .5 millage reduction and had threatened to switch to the East Naples Fire District, taking with it $120,000 in revenues.

“I think that gets Fiddler’s Creek essentially what they’re looking for,” said Commissioner Donna Fiala, who represents East Naples and Isles of Capri and made the motion to merge the departments. “They’ve had a lot of heartache over this but in a way, this is the wave of the future and they want to make sure they’re treated fairly.”

There would be a two-phase approach under the proposed Interlocal Agreement, with East Naples assuming management of the Isles of Capri Fire District until the Florida Legislature approves an increase in East Naples’ boundaries.

Under the merger, set for Oct. 1, they would initially remain as two entities, with East Naples managing the Isles of Capri employees. The number required to staff Isles of Capri likely would involve fewer employees, but ensure two, possibly three firefighters per engine. Capri firefighters could apply for jobs, but without any hiring preference, and firefighters could be moved between stations.

No transfers of reserves or equipment would occur during the initial “management phase,” but East Naples would manage those assets and the Isles of Capri boat will remain staffed, as would its department. There would be no change in mutual aid to Marco Island.

East Naples Fire District is working toward entering into an Advanced Life Support Program with Collier County EMS and it would extend to Isles of Capri.

“I fought loudly and strongly to keep this from happening,” Jeri Neuhaus, a member of the Isles of Capri Municipal Service Taxing Unit, told commissioners. “I think it’s inevitable. I don’t think we’re capable anymore of handling our district. . This time, I’m fully in support.”

Commissioner Tom Henning, who represents part of East Naples, commended Fiala.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Henning said. “It’s sending the right message. ... During the economic downturn, we’ve had to make some hard decisions with the county.”

After the vote, East Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said he couldn’t promise Isles of Capri firefighters any jobs until fire officials meet with county staff. “Anything is possible,” Schuldt said, adding, however, “It will depend on what we negotiate with the county.”

In other business:

Commissioners approved a county audit on fundraising for the $2 million Freedom Memorial, off Goodlette-Frank Road in Naples. The audit shows more oversight and internal controls are needed to ensure compliance with regulations and prevent co-mingling of funds between the county and the Freedom Memorial Task Force, a group of citizens trying to raise $1.2 million. A 12-member advisory board recommended in 2004 was never appointed and county officials recommended that occur now.

Members of the Gulf Coast Retired Firefighters Association give the Freedom Memorial its first coat of paint at Freedom Park in 2010. The Collier County Commission feels the memorial needs more oversight before they hand out county money for the project.

Photo by Lexey Swall

File Members of the Gulf Coast Retired Firefighters Association give the Freedom Memorial its first coat of paint at Freedom Park in 2010. The Collier County Commission feels the memorial needs more oversight before they hand out county money for the project.

Commissioners rejected an eight-year plan proposed by Airport Authority Executive Director Chris Curry that he said would enable the county’s three airports, in Immokalee, Marco Island and Everglades City, to become self-sufficient and pay off the authority’s $21 million loan to the county. Commissioners Tim Nance and Tom Henning questioned a 400 percent increase in fuel revenues that Curry suggested could occur in the future if the economy continues its recovery and the county attracts more users and transportation businesses. Commissioners have refused to accept Curry’s plan to reduce or eliminate the county’s yearly fund transfer, which funds the airports’ budgets, and to pay off the county loan.

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