By Noelle H. Lowery
Last week, the Collier County Board of Commissioners approved the public vote on the proposed consolidation of the Isles of Capri Fire-Rescue Department with the East Naples Fire Control Rescue District. The BCC also tabled the interlocal agreement that would have established a management arrangement between the two districts — effectively putting more than a year of work between the county, Capri and East Naples on hold.
As a result, County Administrator Len Golden Price — who has mediated the creation of the interlocal agreement — will spend the next few weeks gathering information, educating the BCC and district residents and deciding how the vote will be handled. Residents cast their ballots Friday, November 8.
According to Commissioner Donna Fiala, the board’s decision was a win-win for all parties with the added bonus of a clear action plan for the future. “There are still many facts that need to be verified for accuracy so everyone is playing off the same page,” admits Fiala. “I believe in my heart of hearts that all the players want to get their lives back in order and feel the closeness that Capri has always enjoyed.”
The BCC’s decision was a long-time coming. ICFR — which encompasses the residents of Isles of Capri, Mainsail Drive and some 280 homes in Fiddler’s Creek — has been a scene of controversy for the last two years. From the dismissal of former Fire Chief Emilio Rodriguez to a grassroots effort to lower property taxes from 2.0 mils to 1.5 mils, district residents and employees have been on edge.
This spring, they were pushed into the abyss when the BCC voted to consolidate ICFR with East Naples, despite a 3-2 vote by the Capri Fire Advisory Board rejecting consolidation. At the behest of the county, East Naples proposed to take over and operate ICFR at a 1.5-mil rate, to provide “hiring preference” to the existing Capri firefighters and to put a minimum of two firefighters on each shift at Capri. Approval of the interlocal agreement was to be the first step of this consolidation process.
A maelstrom of misinformation and community back-biting ensued, erupting on Sept. 6 during a special meeting of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board. For two hours, the board, Collier County representatives, fire fighters and residents questioned how the consolidation would impact Capri’s current fire fighters, daily operations at the fire station and homeowner’s insurance rates. Both sides of the issue were accused of using scare tactics and lies to generate support.
In the end, this use of misinformation raised concerns from Fiala and BCC Chairwoman Georgia Hiller, and moved them to answer the call from ICFR residents to allow a public vote on the consolidation issue. “This is something that I think voters should have the right to decide,” Hiller explained to the BCC during its regular meeting on September 10. “It is also really important to eliminate any false representations being made in the community.”
To help with this process, Price is on a fact-finding mission. Among the information she is to prepare and distribute: how will the consolidation impact homeowners insurance rates; what will happen to Capri’s grant-funded equipment; what will ICFR’s budget looks like for the next three years; and how will the vote on consolidation be conducted.
“The board directed us to bring back as much information as we can,” says Price.
To be sure, East Naples officials are disappointed the interlocal agreement was tabled, but they are moving forward. Their plates already are full with their own budget process for FY2014, and the current consolidation effort with Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District. This will be complete upon approval from the Florida Legislature next year.
“I am disappointed from the standpoint that we (ENFD) had spent more than a year and invested significant staff time to attend every public and county staff meeting, work in cooperation with county leaders and residents of Isles of Capri to develop the current proposal and ready my organization for the potential addition of responsibilities,” Chief Schuldt laments. “ENFD never initiated this issue and have continued to respond to the requests of the citizens and county staff.”
Still, after the dust settles from the November popular vote, questions will remain. If the majority of district residents vote to consolidate, will the county and East Naples be able to move on the same timeline, or will the time lost to gather information and conduct the vote push the consolidation back further? What will happen to the Capri fire fighters’ jobs and pensions? Will East Naples even want to continue down the consolidation road?
If the majority of district residents vote against consolidation, an even bigger question looms. It’s no secret the economic downturn and subsequent plummeting property values decreased the single funding source for ICFR — ad valorem tax revenues. As a result, the current 2 mil tax rate for the district simply does not raise enough money. In fact, while the district’s FY2014 budget is balanced, it uses about $200,000 in reserve funds. According to Price, “this amount represents virtually all the reserves in that fund,” leaving ICFR broke in FY2015.
Add to this the Fiddler’s Creek contingent who want to reduce property taxes to 1.5 mils and are willing to leave ICFR if the East Naples merger fails, and the district’s financial situation goes from bad to worse. Fiddler’s Creek represents about 12 percent of the district’s property values. The current total district property value is $514,702,011. That is an estimated $1,028,277 in tax revenue. If Fiddler’s Creek leaves, that means a loss of $123,393 in revenue for ICFR.
The funding problem does not scare Capri fire fighters or residents of the tiny island community, many of whom helped to establish the fire house. In numerous public venues, fire fighters have said they will accept pay cuts and furloughs to keep the fire station as it is, while some Capri residents have said they will consider increasing their property taxes to help generate more cash for the budget.
“We know there are money issues,” concedes Tim Garner, an engineer with ICFR. “You have to make cuts where you have to make cuts. Pull the belt tight. If the citizens are willing to pay more, we are willing to take furlough days. We are willing to take a pay cut so it is not the sole responsibility of the residents to make up the difference.”
Whatever the outcome, the key will be informing and educating everyone in the district about the issue, insists Matt Crowder, a member of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board. “If we can’t come up with a fair vote, I believe the BCC may make this decision on its own,” he says. “It is really incumbent on us to get out the right information, get out the vote. Have the right information available for the residents to make their decision.”