State Representative Matt Caldwell gained support for a straw ballot proposal that would consolidate all 17 of Lee County’s fire and rescue districts into one unified district.
The Lee County Delegation, which is made up of all the state legislators that represent the county, voted unanimously to support the straw ballot during their meeting Wednesday. Delegation meetings are forums for local governments, schools, and organizations to have their voice heard by their state legislators. Representative Dan Eagle was voted as the boards new chair during the meeting as Caldwell, the previous chair, will be unable to run for his seat again due to term limits. Caldwell announced his intention to run for Agricultural Commissioner back in May.
“The purpose is to put this issue to bed,” said Caldwell. “Those who have lived here over the decades know the question has come up perennially. You have both proponents and opponents of a change in the way we structure our fire and rescue service. It’s my desire to see that question put to the public.”
The straw ballot proposal met with opposition from a number of fire district and city officials. Cape Coral City Council Member Rick Williams asked that the city be excluded from the straw poll and any unified district that may come from it.
“The city’s fire department are a professional organization with a proven record of being cost effective and efficient organization that the community is proud to stand beside,” Williams said. “There is a reason that 18 out of the top 20 cities in Florida have their own municipal fire departments.”
Cape Coral representatives also brought up the complicated issue of folding in the existing debt of the individual fire districts that the new countywide one would absorb. Many of those bonds are tied to taxes leveled by the district, and new bonds may have to be approved by voters and issued by the countywide district in order to retire previous debts.
Edwin Sokel, a commissioner for the South Trail Fire and Rescue District, told the board that local control of fire services was the best way to meet community needs.
“The commissioners live in the community, we are elected by the community, we interact with the community,” said Sokel. “Do you really think the county commissioners, with all that they have on their plate, can do a better job than all the [fire district] commissioners can? Big government is not the proper answer.’
Many of the delegation members, like Senator Kathleen Passidomo, said that while they may not personally ready to support consolidation, they were willing to support the poll because it gave the community a way to make their voices heard through a non-binding ballot referendum.
“I don’t have a problem with the generic straw poll, but I would have serious problems if it came back and we were basically ramming it down your throat,” said Passidomo.
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