Fire district merger talks off the table – for now

Fire district merger talks off the table – for now
Representatives from eight Manatee County fire districts appeared at the Jan. 29 Council of Governments meeting to discuss the possibility of a county-wide merger. - Kristin Swain | Sun

MANATEE COUNTY – Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said the crowd assembled for the Council of Governments meeting was the largest she’s ever seen.

The reason for that crowd was one agenda item, the possibility of merging all the county’s fire districts into one, an item brought to the table by Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.

“I have no pre-determined agenda,” Benac said, opening the conversation.

With the population and construction growth over the past few years and with what’s expected to come in the future, Benac said she wants to make sure the fire districts still feel that individually they’re up to the task of meeting the safety needs of residents, visitors and businesses.

Representatives from eight of the county’s 10 fire districts were on hand for the discussion – North River, Parrish, Cedar Hammock, Southern Manatee, East Manatee, West Manatee, Myakka City and Trailer Estates Fire Control District. Bradenton Fire Department and Longboat Key Fire Rescue also are located in Manatee County.

“We’re a very popular place for people to come,” Benac said. “The number one priority in the county is public safety.”

She added that in talks with representatives from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and EMS workers she’s gotten the impression that keeping up with the growth is becoming an issue and a strain on resources, including creating a quality of life issue for rescue workers, who regularly work 24-hour shifts. Benac said she wanted to hear from the fire district representatives whether there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Though taxpayer monies go to fund the fire districts, she said the districts are possibly the part of government that people know the least about; they just expect rescue workers to arrive on-scene quickly when needed. One of her goals with the discussion, Benac said, is that she wants to increase communication between the county and the fire districts and increase the communication from the fire districts to the public.

Fire districts often work together through memorandums of understanding and mutual aid agreements, some of which will be before county commissioners during their first February meeting for informational purposes.

Talking about a merger

Though a merger was on the agenda, county leadership cannot force the fire districts to merge and Benac said she has no plans to add fire department administration to the already difficult task of county officials. She cited two feasibility studies, one from 1980 and another from 1992, that both discussed the possibility of a Manatee County-helmed single fire district. The benefit of a single district, she said, would be standardization of training, service and communication, something she feels the individual districts have accomplished on their own.

Each of Manatee County’s fire districts is an independent district. Residents of each district pay a tax or assessment, depending on the district and its policies, that appears on TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices received in the fall. Districts are responsible for their own oversight, management and the services they provide to residents. Each fire district was created using enabling legislation from the Florida state government and, in order to merge, the districts would have to share a border, they both must agree, pay for an independent feasibility study, and get the approval of the majority of residents in each affected district before a merge can happen.

The topic of a merger came up in 2018 when WMFR Commissioner George Harris broached the subject during that board’s meeting. With Chief Tom Sousa retiring in October and the district in the process of selling its administration building, Harris said he felt it was the perfect time to consider merging with the neighboring Cedar Hammock Fire District and Southern Manatee Fire District, which shares a border with Cedar Hammock but not WMFR. Southern Manatee commissioners stated during a meeting that they were not inclined to consider a merger at that time. Talks between WMFR and Cedar Hammock leadership fizzled out at the point of obtaining the feasibility study. After the Jan. 29 meeting, WMFR Commissioner Randy Cooper said the district’s leadership is still open to discussing a merger.

What happens next

While a county-wide merge into one fire district is unlikely at this point, some representatives from the Manatee County fire districts present during the meeting expressed their intent to keep county leadership and the public more informed in the future.

East Manatee Fire Commissioner Garry Lawson agreed that he wants better communication, suggesting a monthly meeting between the districts and a county representative or a regular newsletter to keep all parties informed about the district’s activities.

Chief Brian Gorski from Southern Manatee said the communication among districts is happening, but he feels the weakness might be in getting the information out to the public.

Chief Stacey Bailey of the Parrish Fire District said he feels the fire districts “represent Manatee County in an efficient manner. Our services are second to none.”

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh applauded the fire district representatives and the work done to keep the public safe. She said in her experience the fire districts all work well together and support each other’s efforts. About a merger, she said, “The fire districts should decide. It’s up to them. Each fire district knows their district better than the others, better than the commission.”

“The bottom line is our top priority is public safety. These districts have figured it out,” she added. “I think we need to leave well enough alone. If one thing in our government is working, it’s our fire districts.”

Baugh encouraged her fellow commissioners to visit the fire departments in their districts, take a tour of the facilities and remain engaged to get a better understanding of how the fire service works.

“I’m very proud of the fire districts,” she said. “You guys just rock.”

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