Marco says no to local ambulance service

Lance Shearer

By a margin over eight percent, Marco Island voters turned thumbs down on the idea of taking over local control of emergency medical services in the island city.

Added taxation and uncertainty over city government’s ability to take on additional responsibility seemed to doom the measure, which proponents said was necessary to ensure a second ambulance stationed on Marco Island at all times.

The ballot language specified that property owners would pay $100 per $500,000 taxable value to finance the local EMS service. The revenue generated by the additional taxes amounts to over $2 million, which would have been supplemented by over $700,000 in transport fees the city estimated it would receive with its own EMS.

The multiple issues surrounding the potential for an independent Marco Island ambulance service are complicated and fraught enough to bring on a panic attack. With legal, financial, political, medical, “taxation without representation” and home-rule questions all in play, what would happen with the vote on Tuesday was anybody’s guess.

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Soon after the polls closed, the supervisor of elections’ website showed results for early and mail voting. In those tallies, the “no” votes were ahead in each of Marco Island’s three precincts, with no votes racking up from 51 percent to 57 percent.

When election day ballots were added, the ambulance went down to defeat by roughly an eight percent margin, just over 54 percent, or 3,015, voting no, and 46 percent, 2,575, voting yes.

Deidra Ferguson of Marco displays her "I Voted" sticker  at Precinct 194. Marco Island voters went to the polls Tuesday, if they hadn't already voted, to decide if Marco would proceed with its own independent ambulance service.

The issue, decided only by voters in the City of Marco Island, sparked an advocacy group, “Our City Our Ambulance,” and a spate of guest commentaries and letters to the editor in the Marco Eagle and the Naples Daily News. The Daily News editorial board came out against the proposal.

Retired surgeon Jerry Swiacki, chairman of Our City, Our Ambulances, which pushed for the proposal, joined other supporters in striking a philosophical note.

“We lost. The sun will come up tomorrow,” he said. “There’s a lot of voter dissatisfaction with our city council. People don’t think the city can manage it.” Swiacki is running for a council seat in the November election.

“And number two, people don’t want to pay more taxes.”

More:Marco Island, Collier County continue back-and-forth on ambulance issue

City council chairman Jared Grifoni, who was a strong supporter, said, “I’m happy for our residents. Our primary goal was always to have our citizens choose, not just seven individuals on City Council. The voters have spoken.”

Grifoni pointed to the voter turnout as a sign of the health of the democratic process on Marco Island.

“There were almost 5,600 votes – 1,600 more than the last referendum (for Mackle Park improvements). It shows how highly people were engaged.”

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Mike Murphy, who wrote a guest commentary in support of local EMS control, thanked voters for their participation.

“I want to thank our residents who were so passionately trying to improve our EMS services.” Marco Island, he said, “has made history in the (state) house and senate, opening up an antiquated … system. Now it’s up to the city council to negotiate a contract for a second ambulance.” Island residents, he should, should not have to pay additional for the service.

“It should be at no additional cost. Our residents already contribute over $3 million.”

City councilor Charlette Roman had been opposed to the ambulance plan, at least introducing it at this time.

“I think Marco Islanders got it right,” she said. “If they have the information, they will make an informed decision. It was an eight-percent difference – not a small margin. I’ve always had confidence in Marco Islanders.

“We’re in a period of instability with our government right now. Their vote said we’re not ready.”

It was June 2017 that the Marco Island City Council approved moving forward with a three-prong plan in hopes of securing a second ambulance for the island.

The plan included negotiating with the county for the second ambulance, working with state legislators on a local bill to bypass the need for county authorization and submitting a COPCN application.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in March that will allow Marco Island residents the opportunity to vote on whether they want local control of emergency medical services.

The bill would have allowed the city to bypass county approval of a certificate by receiving its license from the Department of Health every two years.

Had the measure been approved, Murphy said that the purchasing of equipment and hiring of 12 paramedic-firefighters would begin on Oct. 1, with the system fully functional as early as May 1, 2019.

Bureau of Emergency Services Director Dan Summers said and Collier County EMS Chief Tabatha Butcher have previously raised concerns about fragmentation in the EMS system should Marco Island operate its own services.

As an alternative to issuing a certificate to Marco Island, Butcher outlined three different options through cost sharing that would have provided a second ambulance to Marco Island.

All of the options were much less than what’s being asked of Marco Island taxpayers with the highest cost alternative priced at $550,000, Butcher said.

After initially denying Marco Island a second ambulance, the county did not provide alternatives until the local bill gained traction, Grifoni said.

“There wasn’t any action taken to advance those because at that time we had already committed to a binding referendum for the citizens of Marco Island on the COPCN specifically and local control,” Grifoni said. “That’s what the alternatives fail to address: local control. They fail to address the possibility of consolidation moving forward.”

Additional reporting by Devan Patel.