News-Press.com

Estero seeking fire liaison for community


By DENISE L. SCOTT, dscott@news-press.com


Estero Fire Rescue officials plan to become more involved with the rapidly expanding community by hiring a neighborhood liaison.

Interviews have resulted in three finalists, but the community relations manager has not yet been named, Fire Marshal Michael Cato said.

“This person is going to get to know the community and the community’s needs,” he said. “One of the goals the board set for the fire chief is to improve communication externally and internally. He can only attend so many things.”

When Chief Dennis Merrifield is unable to attend community meetings, the fire department’s community relations manager will.

“There will be plenty of opportunities for the fire district to meet people and get the word out,” said Don Eslick, a member of the Estero Community Planning Panel and Estero Concerned Citizens Organization.

“We’re up to about 40 residential communities and adding more every day. I think it’s smart for the district to do that.”

The community relations manager will regularly attend a variety of community meetings and events, making the public aware of the department’s activities and accomplishments — and clarifying any confusions.

“One of the big issues with the area we serve is The Brooks, a portion of The Colony and communities in the south end of Estero carry a Bonita Springs ZIP code,” Cato said. “They don’t know they’re in Estero Fire Rescue’s district.”

In at least one case, property taxes that should have gone to Estero’s fire department have gone to Bonita instead, Cato said. The county, which collects the tax, has been notified. “I think it’s yet to be resolved,” he said.

The money mix-up also happened with a percentage of property insurance earmarked by the state for Estero’s fire department pension plan.

“It’s estimated that tens of thousands of dollars were being directed to the wrong fire department,” Cato said. “Estero was losing its pension money.”

He said insurance companies often get incorrect information from homeowners about which fire district to send that money.

Cato said the Estero Chamber of Commerce is trying to get the postal service to change the mailing addresses to eliminate the confusion.

“We have extra special problems in the southern end,” Eslick said. “It’s very important to have somebody who can communicate effectively.”

The fire department also wants to keep the community informed about its rapid growth, which will include a $1.2 million fire station near Coconut Road and U.S. 41 next year.

The district is also planning a new administrative building — at an estimated cost of $3 million to $4.5 million. It will open in late 2004 or early 2005 next to the Three Oaks fire station.

Both projects will be funded by bonds paid off with the help of fire service impact fees on new construction.

The third project is a fire training facility. The location is yet to be determined, but Cato said other organizations would share in the costs and benefits.

A recommended proposal cites a cost of $11.2 million spread out over seven phases and 10 to 20 years. Cato said the facility could be paid for with a combination of impact fees and grants.

“When I came here two years ago, there was one fire station for 56 square miles,” Cato said. “We’re the fastest growing community in Lee County. We’re trying to keep it so no property is more than a mile and a half from a fire station.”