Estero fire officials avoiding hot issue

Chief staying 'neutral' on Bonita annexation

Published by on April 5, 2005

Merrifield: Estero fire chief

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Estero Fire Rescue officials are being careful not to get pulled into the political vortex of annexation.

"Our official position is that we are neutral on the issue," Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield said.

He said if Bonita Springs were to expand its city boundary, existing fire district boundaries would not change.

"We certainly think the best decision-makers are the ones who are informed."

Much of that information comes from the Estero Council of Community Leaders, a group of volunteers who created the "Estero: Village with a Vision" program.

It touts the benefits of Estero through a brief history of the community, updates on new development and details on how volunteer groups influence those projects.

This year, ECCL Chairman Don Eslick added a primer on the annexation process. He said the council won't take an official position until Bonita presents a specific proposal.

However, Eslick conceded, "I don't think there's any doubt that most people involved are opposed to annexation.

"There's a great desire on the part of most of the people I've interacted with over the years, not simply on the council, to keep Estero united."

It is that outspoken, if not official, opposition to annexation that has made some uncomfortable with the fire district's close involvement with the ECCL.

Merrifield and Community Relations Manager Jim Clarke are the district's designee and alternate on the council.

And three of the five Estero fire commissioners Sam Levy,

Barbara Akins and Dick Schweers also regularly attend ECCL meetings as representatives of their gated communities.

The fire district also linked itself more closely to the ECCL when it recently began selling shirts displaying the "Estero: Village with a Vision" logo to raise money for its own safety education and emergency fund.

"We're Estero. We're part of the community," Merrifield said. "Blending the logos, that's called branding. We're identifying with the community."

Romeo Antoniazzi, 77, of Estero agrees. He has lived in Country Creek for 13 years and opposes annexation, which could put Estero's newest fire station on U.S. 41 within Bonita's city limits.

"We've been very adequately represented by the fire department," he said. "The chief's done a good job. They're very good with community relations."

But Jack Reif, 66, of Estero, doesn't feel like the fire district is identifying with him and others who support annexation.

"They're not neutral," Reif said. "The fire station should stay totally out of it. Let the taxpayers make the decision, whether it's win, lose or draw."

ECCL member and Village program moderator Jim Ramsburg is quick to defend the fire district's involvement.

"There would not be a 'Village with a Vision' if it weren't for Estero Fire Rescue," he said.

Clarke takes aerial photos for the program and operates the Village slide show.

Merrifield and Akins, in her capacity as Estero Civic Association president, serve as panel members for the Q&A portion of the program.

"It's easy to fall into the trap of inserting opinion into the argument, but we're not going to do that," Merrifield said. "We're going to be part of delivering the facts."

Ramsburg said Merrifield even warned the panel after one evening's heated discussion that he could not continue to participate if it morphs into an anti-annexation rally.

"He can't get political at all," Ramsburg said. "He is highly sensitive to that, and we respect it and try to act accordingly, no matter how we feel."

Ramsburg said the panel is very careful not to preach.

"People here are pretty smart," he said. "Give them the facts and let them decide for themselves."

Annexation supporter Reif thinks Estero fire officials are fearful that Bonita's fire district will move into their territory.

However, Merrifield said annexation would not affect any Estero Fire Rescue operations.

"It doesn't have an immediate impact on us," he said. "Only the state legislature can adjust our (fire district) boundaries. Nothing would change."

And, Merrifield said, the board vehemently opposes any attempt to adjust Estero Fire District boundaries.

Ultimately, he said, Estero voters will make the decision whether to be annexed into Bonita.

"Until Bonita Springs says, 'Hey, we want to annex this area,' nobody can make an informed decision whether it's good or bad," Merrifield said.

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