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Lehigh fire chief set to resign Friday

October 17, 2012
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District Chief Don Adams will officially announce his resignation at a special meeting of the board of fire commissioners on Friday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. at the 16th St. fire station. Last week, Adams submitted a letter of resignation to Board Chairman Jeff Berndt and said it had been an honor and a privilege to be a member of the fire district and urged the board to "do all you can to continue to make and keep the fire district great."

Under Florida sunshine laws, board members cannot discuss fire district business away from advertised meetings which are open to the public.

On Friday, the board will set a date for Adams' departure and also discuss whom will serve as an acting chief until a new one is hired by the board. The surprise announcement comes a few weeks before the Nov. 6 election in which there will be a new board with new members. Current Chairman Jeff Berndt chose not to seek reelection. Other seats are also open including the one left vacant with the death of Kevin Shea.

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Chief Don Adams

Adams, 59, told The Citizen that after careful consideration with his wife, he made the decision to announce his resignation now.

"It's just time to go," he said.

Adams works for the board and has had a good relationship with its members. But he has faced unfounded accusations over his work habits, many made by two people at public meetings. One of those has been Cathy Cruse, a Lehigh Acres teacher, whose son and husband have served as firefighters. Her son lost his job a few years back when there was no money to pay firefighters due to the lack of income from Lehigh residents whose home and lot values plummeted, thus producing less income for the district. The fire district depends on income from local taxes and income from ambulance service to survive. The other person who has found fault with the chief is Robert Adams.

And Adams, like other fire department chiefs has had to remove employees for various infractions. That sometimes doesn't set well with former employees.

His resignation could represent what he perceived as "the writing on the wall" with new members being elected to the board, including Cruse who is a candidate to fill a seat.

When Chairman Berndt received the letter he said he thought the chief's legacy is one of the utmost (in terms of) fiscal responsibility. He noted that the chief had charged ahead for the district to be debt free despite the economic downturn in the economy. He said the district does not owe money for the building of two extra fire stations in Lehigh and that the district is now working on funds from its savings.

At the board's last regularly scheduled meeting in September, the board voted to retain the same tax rate as in past years. It set the tax rate at 3 mils, meaning $3 per $1,000 in taxable value. It also voted to pass the nearly $24 million budget for 2012-2013.

Because the district's labor attorney declared an impasse with the two unions representing district employees, the board last month also gave authority in a MOU (Memo of Understanding) for the chief to maintain the current contract until negotiators can come to an agreement.

It was under Chief Adams' leadership that he was able to apply for and receive two large financial grants from FEMA to rehire laid off firefighters, including his critic, Cathy Cruse, whose son was rehired. The latest grant was awarded a few weeks ago and will take place later in a few months when money has been exhausted from a previous FEMA grant.

In the letter to Board Chairman Jeff Berndt he said he couldn't imagine a better career.

"You experience the satisfaction that comes from being the ones called to help in everyone's time of need."

He went on to say: "As one grows older they begin to reflect on their life. I'm not sure if there is a 'right time' to leave a career, an organization, and family of firefighters that I have loved and been so passionate about for most of my adult life. I have poured my heart into the fire service since started with the City of Orlando in 1975 and then to Lehigh Acres in 2006.

He said he believed that the fire district provides the best advanced life support and fire suppression in the nation.

"Recently I have been reevaluating my priorities, faith and family. I have to apologize to my wife for taking precious time away from her as she battles cancer."

He gave credit to Berndt for his insight and said they had discussed many challenges and critical needs of the fire district over the last six years. He also said he was grateful to the board of commissioners, both present and past for their continued support.

"Without their support we could not have obtained the SAFER grant twice, with one of the grants being the highest awards for that period and building the reserves to one of the highest amounts for an independent fire district.

The board has shown confidence in the chief and his leadership by having renewed his contract earlier this year to continue to 2014. Adams's annual salary is around $133,000.

In a discussion with the chief, he told The Citizen that it hurts him a lot when people he has known since moving here and were friends tend not to talk to him anymore because of untruths spread in the community."

That's hurtful to me and my wife," he said.

He said he does not know what he will do in the future.



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