Fla. Isles Residents Want to Keep Their Firefighters

July 07--At midnight Sept. 30, the seven firefighters at Isles of Capri will likely lose their jobs, the small taxing district will dissolve and the water-front fire station on the only road into town will get a new crew.

But a group of Capri residents, led by real state agent Beau Middlebrook, is making a last-ditch push to convince voters to keep the winding peninsula's fire district under county control, even if it means a higher tax rate.

"Are you worried about saving dollars or saving lives?" said Middlebrook, a rare life-long resident of Capri. "That's the question."

Collier County commissioners are set to let the special tax that pays for the Capri station to expire this fall. In an August referendum, they'll ask the district's roughly 1,500 households within 12 square miles if they want the East Naples fire district to take over. Property tax rates would fall from $2 to $1.50 per $1,000 of value under East Naples fire.

The station would stay open and East Naples would maintain the same level of service at the station, with a minimum of three firefighters staffing every shift, East Naples Chief Kingman Schuldt said.

But if Capri joins the outskirts of one of the largest and busiest districts in the county -- one that serves 150,000 residents over 285 square miles -- it's only a matter of time before it becomes an afterthought, Middlebrook said.

"We would be their slowest district hands down," he said "Of course East Naples is promising to keep the way it is. They say they'll put three people at the station, but that doesn't mean they'll stay there throughout their shifts. They're going to have to be moved to cover the district's existing calls in other parts of the county. It doesn't make sense for them to keep people here, so why would they?"

Capri firefighters know the ins and outs of the community and rescue divers know every sandbar out to Keewaydin Island, said Jorge Lara, firefighter and union treasurer.

"If we get a call at some of our houses we can tell you what ailments they're suffering from and we know what equipment to bring," Lara said. "They're our residents and we're there's. We want to continue serving our community."

For the homeowners on Isles of Capri, the change in a firefighter's badge won't mean a change in the level of service, Schuldt said.

"Our goal is to always have three people on a truck and we try to go to four," Schuldt said. "We're going to be adding our fire inspection program to start inspecting commercial properties."

East Naples plans to hire six firefighters to fill positions at Capri and will interview any Capri firefighter who applies, he said.

Any firefighters who aren't hired by East Naples will be offered jobs at Collier County's new fire station along Alligator Alley, which is set to open in by November, said Len Price, the county's administrator of administrative services.

The push to combine the unincorporated county's scattered fire districts has been gaining momentum since the start of the recession after decades of stalled talks and plans.

East Naples has already combined administrations with the Golden Gate fire district, and is in talks with Collier commissioners about taking over the Ochopee fire services, which serves Everglades City, Alligator Alley and the far eastern side of the county. Meanwhile, the busy North Naples and rural Big Corkscrew fire districts are studying a proposed merger.

In the span of a year, the seven districts that serve roughly 300,000 residents in the unincorporated county could become three -- with Immokalee being the only district that has not merged with another.

If the August referendum passes, East Naples will move into the Capri station on October 1.

Just to the north of Capri, the sprawling Fiddler's Creek development is served by both East Naples and Isles of Capri firefighters.

There's no drop in quality of service from one district to another, said Phil Brougham, who supports consolidation and has lived on the Isles of Capri side of the development since 1999.

"They're all professionals," Brougham said. "If the same or better level of service for anything -- if it's a fire department or anything else -- can be provided at lower cost, I don't know why any good-thinking person would decide to not go that route."

Capri and East Naples fire officials will hold a joint town hall meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday to take questions about the annexation at the Isles of Capri Civic Center, 338 Capri Boulevard.

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