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Senate report: Fire district consolidation may save money

MANATEE -- Consolidation of special districts like those handling Manatee’s fire service could increase government efficiency and save taxpayers money, a new report requested by Florida Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett has concluded.

The interim report, issued recently by the Committee on Community Affairs, also recommends a simpler way to merge or consolidate districts, perhaps with the aid of new guidelines the Florida Legislature could enact.

Currently, any changes to independent special fire control districts need approval of the legislature, one of many hurdles to voluntary consolidation, the report acknowledges.

But it concludes efforts to streamline the process might be worthwhile.

“Independent special district mergers and consolidations can generate cost-savings through volume purchasing, standardized operating procedures, pooled investments, joint training, efficient personnel allocation and cost avoidance,” the report states.

The report was requested by Bennett, R-Bradenton, who chairs the Committee on Community Affairs. He said he would like to see voters decide on fire district consolidation on a local ballot.

“I don’t want to do anything that would force special districts or counties to do anything,” Bennett said. “I’m concerned about making it easier to do, I’m not going to force it.”

“I think they could save a lot of money, (with) more efficiency, that’s absolutely their call,” he said.

“But do we need nine fire chiefs, need nine fire chief vehicles? We’ve got a lot of overhead. I think the county should look at those things, but I’m not going to force them.”

The public does not realize how much overhead so many districts require, Bennett said.

“Every fire district has five commissioners, there are 45 of them at an average $500 a month. Add them up,” said Bennett. “I’m just questioning what are we doing here. It should be on the ballot next time. The citizens would have to ask the county commissioners to put it on the ballot.”

Bennett has a personal stake in the outcome, for he has a fire commissioner in his own home. His wife, Dee Bennett, won election Nov. 2 to the Cedar Hammock fire district board.

Manatee’s districts include East Manatee, Cedar Hammock, Myakka City, North River, Parrish, Southern Manatee, Trailer Estates, West Manatee and Duette. Usually considered in another category are the Bradenton and Longboat Key fire departments.

Annual budgets of the districts total almost $50.2 million.

The districts’ respective budgets vary in size: East Manatee is at $17.3 million, followed by Southern Manatee, $12.6 million; Cedar Hammock, $7.6 million; West Manatee, $5.2 million; North River, $5.1 million; Myakka City, $1.2 million; Parrish, $1 million; Duette, $145,000; and Trailer Estates, $50,000.

The Senate report noted several attempted mergers, including one in Manatee between the Cedar Hammock and Southern Manatee districts.

The two districts operated under an interlocal agreement, with one chief and a single jurisdiction and administrative structure from 1995 to 2001, the report said.

“During that time, the districts reported an increase in the quality of protection service, higher insurance service office ratings and $1.8 million in cost savings from shared administrative services,” the report stated.

Legislation was proposed in 2001 to legally merge the two districts, but while it awaited passage, political disagreements developed that led to the project’s demise, the report said.

“Conflicts ... arose when Cedar Hammock began making unilateral decisions without the consultation of Southern Manatee,” the report said.

Disparate millage rates would also be a factor if Manatee County chose to try consolidation.

Its fire districts are supported with a variety of different property tax rates and financing arrangements, said Ken Burton Jr., Manatee County tax collector.

Some of the fire districts have an ad valorem millage rate but most do not, he said.

“They have to get voters to approve that they want to be taxed, and then a lot of the time, they don’t pass,” Burton said.

Districts supported with non ad valorem taxes set fees on different types of property, such as business or residential, that have nothing to do with the value of what’s on the property, Burton said.

Fire districts also collect money upfront during inspections, when buildings are going up, he said.

The Senate report listed political, cultural and legal obstacles to consolidation, citing disparate millage rates, existing labor service and retirement contracts and state or local restrictions.

It cited as benefits “increased government efficiency and services at lower costs.”

Cost savings can be achieved through joint training and human resource departments; shared equipment and maintenance; central inventory, accounting and distribution centers; economies of scale through volume purchasing; elimination of duplication of services, personnel and facilities, and an expanded tax base, it said.

“We’ve given it a pretty good look in our last Council of Governments,” said Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle, referring to consolidation. “It’s a daunting task, to say the least, with somewhat questionable benefits because the pay scales are different, the union status is different. It would take a monstrous effort and the consensus is, it’s not worth it.”

“I hate to use the term, but they are truly little fiefdoms,” Bustle said. “Individual government entities that are quite proud of, and jealous of, their perogative.

“In order to create a situation where there were benefits for everybody, it’s going to take a great deal of work. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it would save any money. It might cost more.”

Julius Halas, director of the Division of State Fire Marshal based in Tallahassee, and a former fire chief at Longboat Key, helped to oversee a complex fire agency consolidation when he was fire chief for the City of Sarasota.

In 1996, the City of Sarasota and Sarasota County consolidated fire services. Relatively stagnant growth in the city and a population boom in the county helped to spur the merger.

He cautioned that consolidation did not come about easily.

Some of the difficulties included instituting common operating procedures, inventories and maintenance, and dealing with changing benefits and salary, Halas said.

“When you take a city and county and go under one agency, most of the county rules and regulations prevailed,” he said. “But you had to have a transition to get everybody there.”

Although Halas said he was familiar with some parts of the Senate report suggesting streamlined guidelines to encourage voluntary consolidation, he declined comment on whether or not such a course would be a good idea for Manatee County.

Calls to several Manatee fire district chiefs for comment on this story were not immediately returned.

Sara Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.