A few years back the City of Estero attempted to privatize it's Fire Department using a well known security agency. Firefighters were locked out of stations and it got ugly. The venture went belly up after many different outcries from public entities and citizens. Since that time the Department has become one of the most progressive departments in the State. Under firm leadership the Department has grown in numbers and increased levels of services as well as the state of the equipment used.


Estero Fire Board treasurer offers to resign after chief's salary discussion

Wednesday, February 12, 2003
By ERINN HUTKIN, echutkin@naplesnews.com

Estero's fire board voted to raise Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield's salary by 6.5 percent Tuesday, using the pay of next-door chiefs as benchmarks.

The move leaves Merrifield with a smaller paycheck than nearby chiefs. Yet board members challenged each other on how Merrifield's salary would compare with other chiefs' in south Lee County.

At meeting's end, Fire Board Treasurer Larry Westin even offered to resign, saying the night's discussion made him believe the board did not trust his quoted numbers on what fellow county fire chiefs earn.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to grant Merrifield a 3 percent cost-of-living increase while giving 3.5 percent more for merit.

The chief's annual salary will jump from $82,113 to $87,451.

Since Merrifield became chief Feb. 1, 1998, his raise will be retroactive to Feb. 1 of this year.

Westin said his research showed Bonita Springs' fire chief earns $106,187 a year, while the chief in San Carlos Park nets $86,600.

Westin said he looked at W-2 wages to make comparisons. He said when Merrifield joined the district, he asked for a flat salary that was all-inclusive. He said fellow chiefs may have added incentives that come from taking classes or achieving certification.

However, Fire Board member Gayle Sassano reasoned that chiefs in Bonita and San Carlos have more years of experience. She said her own research showed San Carlos Park Chief Nat Ippolito earned $75,000 base salary, $11,000 less than quoted by Westin.

"I don't care if you've been here five years or 50 years," Westin told Merrifield. "I'm talking about values ... and the leadership that is being shown."

Merrifield pointed out he came to Estero after eight years as a fire chief in northern Lee County. He said he does not aim to be the county's highest-earning chief, but he does want to be paid fairly.

"In my mind, fairly compensated is being put in the upper level of the pack," he said. "I think the bottom line is, you need to determine what my relative value is to this district."

Only Sassano voted against the raise, saying the percentage should have been lower.

In the past, Merrifield's raises sparked criticism from some in the community. He joined the district in 1998, earning $52,000. In 1999, the board granted an 18 percent raise. A 17 percent raise was approved in 2000.

The board reasoned the jumps were needed to make Estero's wages competitive with other fire districts.

Tuesday's raise was part of Merrifield's annual evaluation where the board ranked his ability to meet goals set last year.

His to-do list included lowering Estero's fire insurance rating by opening three new fire stations and purchasing land for a station on the site of the future Coconut Point retail area.

The board set new goals Tuesday for 2003. The items include improving communication, starting construction of a fire station on U.S. 41 South, as well as an administration building. Merrifield is also expected to develop a budget with a tax rate lower than that of neighboring districts.