When one door closes, another one opens. At least that’s the case for the Isles of Capri Fire Control and Rescue District.
On May 3rd, the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board voted 3-2 against consolidating its Collier County-operated fire district with the East Naples Fire Department, leaving the embattled district in limbo. Three days later, the Marco Island City Council committed to an intense study of bringing the Isles of Capri Fire District under its wing. City Manager Jim Riviere was tasked with penning a letter to Collier County Manager Leo Ochs, informing him of the city’s intent.
Councilman Larry Magel dictated the terms of the letter for Riviere and council: “The city of Marco Island will undertake a detailed study to understand the financial and operational ramifications of submitting a proposal. We expect we will have a decision ready for the fall.”
“We have to do an analysis first,” Magel insisted. “Until that is done, we don’t know where we are. It is a political issue. My sense is that the board of county commissioners wants to get rid of the Isles of Capri (district). Now, the question is where, and does it benefit the city of Marco Island to bring it under our auspices.”
Words that burn
The Isles of Capri fire district has been in the hot seat for close to 18 months now. The problems started in the Fall of 2011 when Collier County suddenly removed Emilio Rodriguez from his post as Isles of Capri Fire Chief. He had been with the district for 20 years.
Since then, the fate of the district has been volleyed back and forth between Collier County and the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board. The main question: How can the district be better managed and by whom? The option discussed has been consolidation with either East Naples or Marco Island.
Last week’s City Council action stemmed from the April 10th letter sent in response to the county commission’s request for a consolidation proposal from Marco Island. Riviere sent the letter, and Marco Island Fire Chief Mike Murphy and Deputy Fire Chief Chris Byrne wrote it. Basically, it told the county commissionMarco Island was not interested in consolidating the two fire districts at this time.
Some council members took exception to the tone and wording of the letter, as well as the fact that Riviere did not seek City Council review or approval for the decision and letter.
“These matters should have been brought to this council. The response of the city is not reflected in this correspondence,” explained Councilman Larry Honig. “As city council, we received an email from the city manager that says ‘last night, I sent the attached correspondence to the county manager in essence stating that for now Marco Island was not inclined to further pursue consolidation.’ That is pretty close to a no. That is pretty close to shutting it down. It is not open-ended.”
A course of study
While Riviere conceded publicly that it was an error on his part to not have sought council approval for the decision, Chief Murphy stood behind the decision during the council meeting, citing the county’s 30-day proposal deadline as the biggest obstacle to a complete and in-depth response from the city.
“Just as we prepare a budget, there are an intense number of issues here,” Murphy explained. “Turning around a proposal in 30 days is not adequate, and cannot be done.” Still, he added, “if you believe there is any benefit in having all parties sitting down at the table to work out a solution, we would be glad to as a cooperative neighbor.”
Riviere agreed: “We do business over the bridge in the water and sewer department, so we’re experienced as to how to find the other side of the river.”
To be sure, there are questions to be answered. What will the costs of consolidating and operating the two fire districts be? How will those costs be paid? How will the Isles of Capri fire house be managed and operated? What about the mingling of personnel? How will county-controlled EMS services be effected by a consolidation?
Most important to the Marco Island City Council, though, was the level of service question. “We need to determine whether or not Marco Island feels as though we can provide to the citizens of the Islesof Capri the same level of service we provide to ourselves, and if so, what would it take to do that,” asked Councilman Honig.
Of course, the two fire districts already work closely together answering mutual calls, pointed out Chief Murphy. “There might be a benefit to the citizens of Marco Island and the citizens of the Isle of Capri if the level of service we are providing and the level of service we could be assured we would be receiving were at the standards and levels that we give to our citizens today,” he noted.
Treading lightly but firmly
Not everyone thought the study of the consolidation idea was a good one, though. “My position is that this is a county problem,” said Councilman Amadeo Petricca. “I’d like to leave it a county problem, and not let it become a Marco Island problem. I think we have enough things on this island to take care of on our own. Let’s not water it down with another problem that is not on the island.”
Councilman Honig was cautious as well, despite believing the city has a “very strong negotiating position” on the issue with Collier County. “We should have a very tough mind of what we are willing to do, and make that the underpinning of (our) response (to the county manager),” he instructed. “We should not bend to all of what are going to be requests and requirements by Isles of Capri and the board of county commissioners. If that is where we are headed, then I would object to even this evaluation.”
As for the Isles of Capri, Jim Hughes, the chairman of its fire advisory board, was grateful to the city of Marco Island for its decision to do the study. “I thought your letter (to the county manager) was right on. It was too short, too quick,” he said. “East Naples tried hard, and gave us a good outline. But, it was too open-ended, and gave us no place to go with it. We look forward to the Fall to see what you come up with and possibly from East Naples as well.”