Friday, September 30, 2016

Shouting "Fire" in Collier County

Debates about fire protection and ambulance service are always fulsome and often contentious. And that's as it should be. After all, lives and property are at stake.

So it was helpful that two public forums were held this past week, forums that gave voters a chance to see and hear commission candidates for Collier County's two largest fire districts -- Greater Naples Fire & Rescue (the product of merging the East Naples and Golden Gates districts) and North Collier Fire & Rescue (formed by consolidating the North Naples and Big Corkscrew districts).

The debates were a big deal. They highlighted differences in the candidates, in their outlooks and beliefs and gave stark indications of how our safety and pocketbooks will be affected by the November elections.

Sound overly dramatic? It's not.

Let's look at some of those differences.

First off, the contrast between the districts themselves couldn't be greater. The Greater Naples crew is collegial and productive, with a history of working together to improve service and save money. North Collier, on the other hand, is fractured, a brawling bunch with huge differences among themselves on policy and future direction.

Greater Naples, having absorbed Isles of Capri and approved an interlocal agreement to manage the sprawling Ochobee district, is committed to countywide consolidation. It has worked effectively with the county on EMS and everything else.

By contrast, the current North Collier board wants little to do with further consolidation, touting its superiority as a standalone district. It has fought bitterly with the county over who should control Advanced Life Support training for its paramedics. The November election will decide whether this circle-the-wagons policy continues.

Here are two of the most contentious issues.

(1) Timing and cost of further consolidation. Most in Greater Naples and some in North Collier favor moving ahead. Many say you have to merge fire districts first -- focus on that -- and then consider sweeping in EMS. The cost of swallowing EMS is a concern. But Tom Henning, a county commissioner and candidate for Greater Naples fire commissioner, says a shift of EMS from county control to a consolidated independent district would almost certainly be accompanied by a shift of EMS funding from county coffers as well, avoiding an extra burden to the taxpayer.

Opponents, many of the North Collier incumbents, say forget about EMS costs. The bigger issue is a jump in North Naples millage, now 0.95, the lowest in the county. Would the rich folks in North Naples stand for a millage increase to grease the skids for further consolidation? They would get little for their money, since the existing service is already very good.

What's the next step for further consolidation? Start discussions between Greater Naples and North Collier. Analyze the pros and cons. Find out if the metrics are favorable. Of the North Collier candidates, Jim Burke, Richard Hoffman and Meg Stepanian favor taking this next step. Burke says, "We have one sheriff in Collier County. We should have one fire chief."

(2) Lying to the voters. A bare-knuckles issue is the allegation that North Collier commissioners failed to keep their promise to North Naples taxpayers that they would not have to subsidize Big Corkscrew, a financially strapped district. Separate books have been kept, but candidates differ sharply on whether North Naples is paying more than its share.

Hoffman, Burke and Stepanian say yes. Norm Feder, Chris Lombardo and Christopher Crossan say no. Lombardo says the difference is only 1.3%, so what's the big deal. Ramon Chao denies any promises were ever made. Gail Nolan says North Naples should get over it. We're North Collier now, one district. Forget about the past.

In another twist, perhaps not surprising, we hear that the struggle in North Collier is fueled by the self interest of the firefighters' union, which funds candidates who support the status quo. Apologists say that's not all bad when the status quo means operating in the black and providing top-notch service.

However you see it, the differences in North Collier are real, and the election will impact both costs and services in the years ahead. And, importantly,  it will determine whether countywide consolidation moves ahead.

The public has the whip hand. Use it. Be sure to vote on November 8. It's a long ballot, but nothing is more important, at least locally, than selecting the right fire commissioners.


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