Lehigh Acres Interim Fire Chief John Wayne is expected to be told this week that the fire district's board of directors has chosen him as full-time chief. He has been serving for several months as interim chief while members of the board interviewed at least one other candidate.
Wayne is expected to be approved unanimously by the board on Thursday, Aug. 8, a date that was set last week as a special hearing to resolve the hiring question. The meeting is open to the public and will be at Fire Station 104 at 16th Street and Sunshine Boulevard. It will start at 5 p.m.
But after the board decides to hire him Thursday, without any problems that could come up, members cannot vote until Aug. 27 at their next regularly scheduled meeting. Then it's official.
The interim chief has sent the commissioners a proposed contract which will be discussed Thursday.
Wayne said last week during the commission's regularly scheduled July meeting that it was time for the board members of the district to make up their minds and let him know if they wanted him to be their full-time fire chief or not. That was on July 30. So the fire board set up a special meeting only to discuss the hiring of Wayne, who has served for several months in the chief's spot.
"I need a commitment. I have to know (if I am going to be hired). I can't go on any longer," Wayne told the five-member group, which has always believed members favored Wayne for the position, but has delayed making a decision, partly because the board advertised for prospects and received one that they rejected despite the recommendation of a paid consultant from the Iona McGregor Fire District.
Wayne, a longtime employee of the Lehigh Fire District, and a former battalion commander, had presented a proposed contract to the board. He had answered questions privately from some of the members on a one-on-one basis as it would be illegal to meet with more than one commissioner due to the state's sunshine laws. He has met all the requirements asked by the board.
It had been on the agenda at the last meeting, held July 30 to take action to set up a special meeting for a final decision on Wayne's contract.
Board Chairman Larry Becker told Wayne he would know by the end of the meeting on Aug. 8 if he would be hired as fire chief. Wayne jokingly said he would stay to 2 a.m. to find out.
Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-Lehigh Acres) spent the early part of the two-hour meeting explaining the new law (SB1410) passed by both the Florida House and Senate and signed by Gov. Scott, allowing special districts in the state, to use another way of funding its operations.
Caldwell had been asked nine months ago by the fire board to help by getting a bill through the legislature to allow assessments as a way to fund the fire district.
Caldwell, along with others, had been instrumental in getting such a bill through the legislature that would allow assessment fees to be used as a way to fund a fire district. Currently, the Lehigh Acres Fire district is funded through ad valorem taxes and due to the Great Recession since 2008, the department has faced serious funding problems, much due to the lack of taxes from owners of homes that had lost value, and due to the many foreclosures. Lehigh led the nation in the number of foreclosures, Becker reminded the board.
Thanks to two federal grants from FEMA, which paid for salaries of firefighters and good financial reserves in the bank, the Lehigh fire board has been able to survive so far, but board members and others are worried about the district's future financial condition. The district also operates an ambulance transport service, different than the one supplied by Lee County although the two work together in Lehigh.
Chief John Wayne has told commissioners that it takes around a million dollars a month to run the district.
Caldwell said the district could choose one or the other - ad valorem taxes or assessment fees - to pay the bills of the fire district, which includes salaries and operations and the maintenance of several fire stations.
However, Caldwell said the voters of Lehigh Acres would have to approve being assessed by the fire district and a question would be put on the 2014 ballot asking the voters to give the fire board the right to use assessments as a way of funding the department.
Without proper funding, and without a vast improvement in the economy, the fire department could go broke in two years, members of the board have said. If that happens, Caldwell said the state would be forced to take over the operations of district, but he couldn't offer any conditions about how the situation would be handled.
Commissioners agreed that they needed to "educate the public" about the seriousness of the funding problems so that when the question goes to ballot, the measure would pass, making it possible for the board to declare an assessment policy instead of ad valorem funding.
Mohammad Yasir, who had attended last Tuesday's meeting said the fire board has to "sell it right."
"You guys in the fire department are doing a great job for us, Yasir said.
Once Chief John Wayne is officially accepted at the end of this month, he will have replaced former Capt. Don Adams who left the department last November.
At first, Wayne and Fire Marshal Ken Bennett worked together to operate the department. Then Bennett pulled out and Wayne was left to run the department and answer to the board. At one point, he said he was not interested in the position, but later changed his mind.
But last week, he reminded commissioners that putting off a decision for so long to hire him as the chief was affecting his personal life.
The board, critics say, wasted a lot of time listening to a paid consultant it hired to advertise for the position in Florida. And in the end the only applicant was rejected by the board.
During the last few months, people like Commissioner Janis Danis said she thought Wayne was the best possible choice as commissioner.
But Commissioner Cathy Kruse, a supporter of Wayne, she said, had questions she wanted to ask him before she made a decision. Chairman Larry Becker seemed to favor Wayne's appointment over the past few months while commitments didn't come in the beginning from both Commissioner David Adams and Linda Carter.