Before the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District got down to business affecting several fire department issues, board members and those attending were given a brief presentation by Tony Palermo, a senior planner with Lee County, over the future development of Lehigh, especially the planning for downtown and Joel Boulevard, near the old Admiral Lehigh property.
He spoke of two activity centers where residents could live and work and help the community to become more like a "downtown" than a sprawled out metropolitan area. He told them the Lee County Commission had approved the two sites for activity centers, but said it could take from 10 to 30 years before a lot of change will be seen, citing several factors from developers and planners and projects.
When the presentation was over, the fire board went to work with a long agenda, beginning with a discussion about the hiring of a new chief and the procedures underway to replace former chief Don Adams who resigned last November.
Updates and possible amendments to hiring the chief were discussed with a plan to expand the pool of candidates for the chief's position. The board members discussed whether they should change the required academic qualifications of the fire chief from holding a master's degree to holding only a bachelor's degree, expanding the search to a national level of candidates, and extending the deadline for applications from May 17 to May 31.
That sparked a comment from Commissioner Jacki Danis who said she thought the board was dragging its feet in the selection process and she hoped it would not take much longer to hire a chief.
John Wayne, the interim chief, said four months ago that he would be an applicant for the position and it appeared that many, some believe, if not all on the board, might choose him.
The board decided a few months ago to hire a consultant, a member of the Iona McGregor Fire Dept., to help in the process of hiring by coming up with requirements and for advertising the position in Florida publications online. The offer came with a price tag of a few thousand dollars.
Attorney Richard Pringle was asked if he knew how many applicants have applied or showed interest and he said the consultant has told him there has been much interest in the position, but he did not know the number of applicants to date. He said he would know by May 17, the cutoff date for applications, which had been decided by the board in a previous meeting.
No action was taken on changing the academic requirements for a different degree, but the board did vote to hold a workshop with Pringle, which would be open to the public, as soon as possible and after the workshop date had been publicly announced.
At the workshop, commissioners would discuss the current chief selection process with an emphasis on the criteria for choosing a fire chief.
Later Interim Chief Wayne announced agreement of a contract with IAFF Local 1826, District 6 bargaining unit with an agreed contract for the period of Oct. 1, 2012 to September 30, 2015. According to fire district staff, the previous employment contract with the IAFF Local 1826 District six bargaining unit had expired in September of last year. Management had provided a tentatively agreed upon contract to be unilaterally ratified by the fire board and the union. New pay and benefit concessions will take effect on the first pay day in July of this year which July 11, 2013.
The board approved the contract and noted that the newly ratified agreement would yield financial savings to the district compared to current pay and benefits with concessions of around $530,000 made by union members.
The vote to ratify was taken as a "voice vote" as required by law and all voted yea to ratify the contract.
Several employees of the fire department were at the meeting and cheered following the ratification and an official of the union gave what he called "special thanks" to the chief and the board for the accomplishment.
Chief Wayne called the accord "a solid working agreement." He also mentioned using a "kindly and gentler process" during the bargaining negotiations.
It was also noted that six staff employees voluntarily conceded concessions in the form of unpaid furlough days to include Fiscal Year 2012/2013, FY 2013/2014 and FY 3014/2015.
Wayne said the financial concession were from the he non-bargaining unit employees which included Ken Bennett, assistant chief and fire marshal, Sue Platas, administrative assistant and Human Recourses, Ben Van Klingeren, finance manager, Vanessa Koza, the billing specialist, Jeffrey Nickell, division chief of logistics and Janis Williams, secretary and member of Life Safety.
The estimated total fiscal impact for the district will amount to $22,943.21 over the three-year span.
Later during the meeting, Commissioner Cathy Kruse raised questions about benefits being paid to former chief Don Adams asking if in fact did the chief retire or resign. She said she was concerned with monies and wondered what the contract stated in this regard. Attorney Richard Pringle was asked by Commissioner President Larry Becker to look into the matter and come back in June to report his findings in regards to what the contract did and did not stipulate about what the board would pay in any type of benefits to Adams.
The board also agreed to take on a third-party billing company for EMS transactions, EMS, Management and Consultants Inc.
Since May of 2009, the district moved the billing functions from an outside company back in-house with district staff. Since then ambulance transports have increased approximately 60 percent since the 2008/2009 fiscal year, but the district has maintained same administrative billing personnel during that time period, overwhelming the position.
Attorney Pringle also told the board that he had met with Rep. Matthew Caldwell and that a bill to change the way the district and other districts in the state are supported solely by ad valorem taxes did not make it out of a House Committee. However, he said Caldwell told him, the bill is being attached to another bill which was being considered before the legislature ends its session. The bill would allow fire districts to establish assessment fees for funding, but the measure would have to come up for a public vote in 2014. The bill would stipulate that fire districts could be funded either by assessment fees or by ad valorem taxes, but not both, according to Pringle.
The next meeting of the fire district's board of commissioners will be on the last Tuesday night of May, beginning at 6 p.m. and is held at the fire station off of Sunshine Blvd. at 16th Street.
All meetings are open to the public and residents are encouraged to ask questions at appointed times at the meetings.