In an "unofficial" vote of 4 to 1, John R. Wayne has been hired as the new fire chief for the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District. The "vote" came at a 3 -hour workshop last Thursday night during a special advertised meeting set to discuss the proposed contract and hiring of Interim Chief Wayne, who has been running the department for close to a year. He replaces former Chief David Adams, who retired last November.
The vote is not official until the end of the month when it is voted on at a regularly scheduled meeting, according to state statute requirements.
But the victory for Wayne wasn't easy and came at a cost of likely hard feelings because one of the fire commissioners began the meeting with an attack on "figures from Wayne" she said were questionable concerning the recent wage settlement with the district's two unions. In an emotional almost 15-minute attack, she held papers up in the air saying they didn't add up. She also said there were tapes allegedly where union members called members of the board stupid. But no tapes were provided nor played.
Kruse is a teacher and new member of the Lehigh Acres Fire District, along with Linda Carter, Jackie Danis and Larry Becker, who is the district board's chairman. The other member is David Adams, who was a member of the last sitting board before the election last year.
Becker tried to guide the discussion back to the reason the board was meeting - a discussion on Wayne's proposed contract. Wayne is a long-time firefighter who was a battalion chief when named as interim chief and was also a member of the union. He has been with the department for 21 years.
After the speech from Kruse, Wayne defended himself and said he had nothing to do and was not responsible for the numbers she was quoting and said they came from a former financial officer and apparently none on the board had any reason to question them either. He reminded Kruse that the union negotiations were over.
Mostly, what Kruse said ended up on deaf ears of the other four commissioners, but it took about an hour before the board finally got back to the discussion of the proposed contract that Wayne had prepared, now with changes suggested by the board and inserted in the contract by the board's attorney. The board, under the direction of attorney Richard Pringle, went section by section, paragraph by paragraph as the 17-page contract was discussed. Minor changes were made in some areas that the board agreed upon.
When the salary of Wayne was brought up in the discussion, Kruse was the only one who indicated she didn't agree with it.
Wayne's salary is listed at $132,188 a year. But with concessions like other employees have taken to save the district money, his paychecks will be smaller.
According to the contract, $204.88 per pay period will be deducted from the chief's paycheck each pay period starting with the first pay period in August and continuing until Sept. 30, 2015.
"Are you all okay with this salary?" Commissioner Becker asked board members. Each said "yes," but when he sought a reply from Kruse, she softly said "no."
Wayne's job officially as chief comes at the Aug. 27 meeting in which a formal vote will be taken. The board couldn't take an official vote or legal vote at the special meeting which was called for a discussion and final direction as how the members of the board felt, due to state statue. Pringle told board members no official action could be taken, but they were there to discuss a proposed contract and to listen to anything the public wanted to say in three minutes each at the podium.
While the meeting was open to the public, none attended. About a dozen or so firefighters sat in the audience listening to the discussions. That is not unlike regularly scheduled public meetings when residents of Lehigh don't show up.
At the beginning of the special meeting, three people spoke up in Wayne's favor, saying they believed he would be a good fire chief and an asset to the district. Nobody dissented.
As stated, the public rarely attends any of the scheduled meetings which are held on the last Tuesday nights of the month at 6 p.m. at Station 104 at 16th St. off of Sunshine Blvd.
Over the past several years, at least three fire chiefs are believed to have been forced from office due to local politics and bickering. That is something that Wayne was concerned about when he presented his contract to the board, he said. The contract is for three years and will cover the period when the board plans to put to referendum the subject of financing the district through assessment fees rather than ad valorem taxes.
Recent legislation was passed in Tallahassee giving fire districts the authority to use that form of financing their fire stations in lieu of ad valorem taxes.
But Rep. Matthew Caldwell (R-Lehigh) who helped to get the bill written and passed and signed by Gov. Scott, told board members at their July meeting that they had the choice of using one of the methods, but not both.
And that before they can charge assessment fees, the voters must give their approval to be taxed that way, he said. If voted down, the fire board would have to continue to use ad valorem taxes, which are capped, and some have said the department may go broke within five years without added income from the public or more federal grants. It has continued to operate, thanks to having a financial backup in savings and two FEMA grants which have paid several firefighters' paychecks. Whether FEMA would hand out a third grant to the district is not known, but officials say an application will be made. The Lehigh fire district is the busiest one in Lee County and covers the largest area.
The official vote to employ John Wayne as chief will likely follow the way commissioners indicated they felt at the hearing last week. While not bound by her feelings at the special hearing, Kruse could decide to vote with the majority to make it an unanimous vote.