WMFR commissioners address merger concerns

WMFR merger district map
On this map of Manatee County fire districts, WMFR’s district, noted in orange, is nearly split down the middle by the City of Bradenton district, marked in white. WMFR shares an eastern border with Cedar Hammock, marked in light blue, the district which separates WMFR from Southern Manatee fire district. - Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office | Submitted

BRADENTON – West Manatee Fire Rescue commissioners are giving Commissioner George Harris the green light to reach out to leaders at two other Manatee County fire districts to see if there’s any interest in merging.

Talks about a merge began in May with a comment by Harris, saying that with the district readying to sell its administration building and Chief Tom Sousa considering retirement in three years, now is the time to talk about merging with another district. At the June meeting, Harris said, as chair, he’d approached the commission board chairs at both Cedar Hammock and Southern Manatee to see if there is any interest in a merger between the three fire districts. He said both chairs were willing to discuss the idea with their boards.

At WMFR, Harris’ fellow commissioners agreed to have the discussion but not to put forward any funds for an independently-conducted feasibility study that would be required by the state before a merger could take place. In addition to the study, each district would have to hold public hearings, publish a plan for how the merger would work and enter into a joint resolution with the other merging fire districts. The final decision would be up to voters. If at any point during the process there was opposition from one district or its voters to the merger, the process would likely end.

Commissioner David Bishop wished Harris good luck on his quest, noting that WMFR had previously considered merging with the neighboring Cedar Hammock district in 2010 and had rejected the idea.

“You’ve got a lot of hurdles to tackle,” he said to Harris.

Before the feasibility study, each board has to determine how or if the merger would be beneficial to their district and employees. Harris said items to consider include if the merger would improve the level of service in one or all of the three fire districts, if there would be no increased cost to taxpayers and if the merger terms would be agreeable to each district’s firefighters union. Commissioner Larry Jennis said he believes mergers like this often are done to cut overhead and administration costs, something that’s already been accomplished at WMFR.

“How much could we expect to gain in that area?” he asked.

Harris said he would expect cost savings to appear over time. The trick, he said, would be to avoid an increase in short-term costs.

Another issue with the merger proposed by Harris is that mergers of special districts are only allowed if the two share a border. While WMFR does share an eastern border with Cedar Hammock, of the two, only Cedar Hammock shares a border with Southern Manatee. In order to bring Southern Manatee into the mix, Cedar Hammock’s leadership would have to agree to the merger with WMFR.

At their June meeting, Southern Manatee commissioners were less than enthusiastic about the idea.

Southern Manatee Commissioner Daniel Center said he didn’t understand why a merger with a district not bordering its own was even a discussion at this point. In addition to believing the merger talks are premature, he said he’s unsure what a district as large as Southern Manatee would gain from merging with Cedar Hammock and West Manatee.

Commissioner Melanie Marken agreed that she felt the talks were premature and felt that it put undue stress on district employees who might be concerned about their positions if a merger were to take place.

Without an agreement to a merger from Cedar Hammock leadership, Southern Manatee commissioners agreed it was “a conversation about nothing” for their district at this point.

Cedar Hammock’s commission board meets July 26.