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Fire department consolidation opposed by Cape also rejected by County Commission

By Staff | Apr 17, 2018

Cape Coral officials opposed to the consolidation of Lee County’s various – and numerous – fire districts have nothing to worry about, at least not this year.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners decided 4-1 Tuesday against bringing the matter to the voters via a straw poll, or non-binding vote. Commissioner Brian Hamman, whose district includes Cape Coral, was the lone dissenting vote.

If all Lee County’s fire districts were to be consolidated, Cape Coral officials said Monday the city could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in pension funds every year.

For that reason the Cape Coral City Council unanimously voted to ask the Lee County Board of County Commissioners for the city to be carved out of any straw poll related to such a consolidation.

Interim Fire Chief Mike Russell made his case, saying that with Cape Coral now the 10th largest city in the state, it needed to control its own destiny.

“We need to provide a level of service. This bill can take the power away from us,” Russell said. “We would be at the mercy of a central board and we would lose control.”

Russell said the move would increase services to unincorporated Lee County, decrease services inside the city, and force Cape Coral residents to foot the largest part of the bill, with an extra impact of $7 million per year.

But the biggest impact would have come in the form of the retirement reforms the city made with the firefighters, which would essentially be null and void with consolidation. That could have cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years, officials said.

The straw ballot that had been proposed for the general election in November would have been non-binding and would only have gone forward if the majority of residents voted in favor of consolidation.

The county commission’s vote Tuesday took the matter, brought forward at the state level, off the table at least until the next legislative session.

In other business:

Council voted to reject a petition to waive a delinquent water bill from the prior owner.

City ordinance requires outstanding liens to be satisfied by the owner.

The previous owner’s debt on the water accounts was perfected by recording liens on the owner’s accounts for the location, done by the Lee County Clerk of Courts.

The petitioners, Fletcher Reynolds and Andy Ritums, challenged the city’s ability to collect utility charges from the new homeowner when the charges were incurred by the previous one.

Councilmember Jennifer Nelson said the ordinance is clear, and that if they allow the waiver for this case, they would have to do it for all, at great expense to the city.

“This would put the city in serious legal liability. I suggest we don’t support this waiver,” City Manager John Szerlag said.

The City Council also discussed its future in the Regional Planning Council.

During unfinished business, Councilmember John Gunter said he learned that the county is required to participate, but municipalities aren’t. He recommended the city withdraw and made a motion for that.

Councilmember Jessica Cosden said the motion should be placed on the agenda for the next city council meeting on May 7. The motion passed, even though it seemed council has made a decision on the matter, Mayor Joe Coviello stated.

“It’s inappropriate to make city decisions without city research or without it being on the agenda,” Cosden said.

Council approved the hiring of another deputy police chief, a position that was eliminated during the economic downturn, as well as the hiring of Cheryl Makowski as the legislative executive assistant to council.

Council also elected five soon-to-be juniors to serve on the Youth Council. They were Isabella Ico of Cape Coral High School, Brittney Curvulli of Island Coast, Javier Orozco of Mariner, Jake Zivkovic of Oasis and Amanda Benitez of Cape Coral High as an at-large.

Carson Baxter of Cape High and Olivia Cerretani of Bishop Verot also gave City Council a presentation of what the Youth Council had done in the past year.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. Councilmember John Carioscia did not recuse himself on the vote pertaining to the fire consolidation straw poll; he was part of the 8-0 unanimous vote. Councilmember Carioscia recused himself from the lien vote as the one of the persons appealing to Council was his physician. The Breeze apologizes for the error and regrets any confusion to our readers.