Immokalee’s Fire District is undergoing big changes

ib 0225 ifd duoImmokalee’s Fire District continues to undergo big changes. Chief Paul Anderson and Fire Board Commissioner Anne Goodnight are working toward implementing a fire assessment they feel will equalize the financial burden of fire fighting and prevention.

The five-member, all volunteer Immokalee Fire Department board meeting February 11 voted unanimously to proceed with a consultant and inform the county of the possibility that a fire assessment may be instituted in Immokalee.

According to Chief Anderson, 60 percent of the Immokalee population either does not pay ad valorem taxes because they do not own property or pay very little because their property is under the threshhold. So, while only 40 percent of residents pay ad valorem taxes at this time, if a fire assessment is introduced 100 percent of residents would pay for fire protection.

In addition, there many exemptions for nonprofits, such as churches and government properties, and agriculture. The result is, ad valorem taxes paid in Immokalee are not enough to support its fire protection.

Their plan is to adopt a fire assessment that will apply to all property owners in the Immokalee Fire District.

Immokalee’s official population is 29,500, but increases dramatically during the season.

They say implementation of a fire assessment could result in lowering ad valorem taxes, currently at 3.75 mills. Their idea is to put in a fire assessment for all and reduce ad valorem taxes for those eligible. In effect, they look forward to a balancing of the cost of fire protection among all residents.

Initiating a fire assessment is not unique to Immokalee. The chief said Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral have both initiated fire assessments.

In the future, if the economy improves and there are more property owners to share the costs, the ad valorem could be raised so won’t be necessary to have a fire assessment.

An emergency is, first of all, about the people involved. However, Chief Anderson and Commissioner Goodnight pointed out that it costs money to respond to any emergency. When the economy tanked, that cost did not go away. IFD felt the crunch, just like everyone else.

In the three years he’s been at IFD, Chief Anderson has committed himself to reducing costs.

Because he focused on redoing the budget, saving money, according to Ms. Goodnight, the department “is a lot better off now.”

The station at Carson Road actually closed several years ago and six firefighters had to be laid off. For a time the Big Corkscrew Island Fire Department and Chief Rita Greenberg oversaw the Immokalee FD as well.

Chief Anderson wrote and won two SAFER grants and put on several firefighters. However, the grant will run out in November 2018. At that point, the district will have to absorb their salaries.

The fire assessment is expected to be on the August ballot for Immokalee voters.

A possible fire assessment is not the only change on the horizon for IFD.

The possible consolidation of all Collier County fire districts is another hot issue for IFD. Ms. Goodnight said the county commission has put the issue on the March Primary as a straw ballot. The idea is that it will streamline emergency services. North Naples and Corkscrew consolidated into one unit and Golden Gate and East Naples have done the same.

Those departments are in more urbanized areas, Chief Anderson said, so it makes sense for them. Because Immokalee is a good distance from the other districts, the chief said, it would not be a good fit here. IFD covers some 234 square miles of territory and includes Ave Maria, which has its own station, four miles north of Alligator Alley, along Hendry County line, Lee CountyCorkscrew Road and south to Oil Well Road. The department has a budget of $3.7 million – $1.2 million in federal grants (which run out November 2018).

Chief Anderson feels Immokalee needs an independent district for local control. A countywide chief could move Immokalee trucks – paid for by Immokalee residents – to other areas of the county. He cites an incident in 1987 when Lake County consolidated and took four wheel trucks purchased for a specific local area unreachable by other trucks, and put them in the Ocala National Forest. In a very short time two houses burned down because no truck could get to them. They were located in an difficult area to get to – and were the reason those trucks were purchased in the first place.

Ms. Goodnight also points out that the Immokalee Fire District is controlled by a locally elected fire board. If the county consolidates all the districts, Immokalee will likely have no representation on the board because all members would be elected at large.

She favors maintaining an independent district with local control at this time, although she concedes that some day it may be different if the area builds up. Another problem is that other departments are in debt for trucks, facilities, equipment. IFD is debt-free. If it were to be rolled in with the other fire departments, IFD’s $2.5 million in reserves will go to help pay debt incurred by other departments.

Ms. Goodnight said she doesn’t want to isolate Immokalee from the county but Immokalee “doesn’t its get fair share” because insufficient ad valorem taxes are raised here.

As part of central control, only the county could authorize Advanced Life certified paramedics to ride on firetrucks, using a Certificate of Public Care and Necessity (CPCN). This would cause a huge impact on Immokalee. The county is considering disallowing CPCNs for any department except those run by the county. At this time, IFD has three firefighters trained as paramedics and three more in training who will be certified by 2017.

The two ambulances in Immokalee are two of the busiest in the county, as well as the farthest away from a hospital. That means it takes longer for an ambulance to make a run from Immokalee than one in an urban area. Chief Anderson cites this example: recently five people were hurt in a SR 82 vehicle crash. There was only one ambulance with one paramedic available for five patients. It took 15 minutes to get another ambulance on scene.

Chief Anderson feels it is in Immokalee’s best interest to have a paramedic on its firetrucks and feels that not allowing departments to have a CPCN would circumvent local elected bodies. He notes that IFD has not requested a CPCN as yet, but Big Corkscrew was denied.

If the county goes to consolidation, the county would have one fire chief and all the others would go to assistant chief positions with more pay, less work. Still, Chief Anderson feels that losing a six minute response time in the area, five minutes in Immokalee and Ave Maria even less, would not be best for Immokalee.

Consolidation will appear on the March Primary as a straw ballot.

IFD has 30 firefighters covering three 24-hour shifts – ten firefighters per shift.

Patty Brant, Publisher of the Immokalee Bulletin can be reached at pbrant@newszap.com

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