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Battle over fire district merger intensifies as legislative vote looms

Fort Myers Beach Fire District faces possible merger, igniting debate over cost savings and community safety.
Posted at 10:41 PM, Nov 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-29 22:41:35-05

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — In a move that could reshape emergency services in Lee County, the Fort Myers Beach Fire District faces an uncertain future as the county's legislative delegation prepares to vote on a proposed bill that could mandate its merger with Bonita Springs and Iona-McGregor.

When Fox 4 last reported on the potential merger, only the Bonita and Fort Myers Beach districts were in consideration. However, under the new proposed bill, the Iona Fire District would also be brought into the fold, merging with the area north of Matanzas Pass. Republican Adam Botana of Bonita Springs, the bill's sponsor, contends that such consolidation would result in substantial cost savings for taxpayers.

Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief, Scott Wirth, opposes the proposed merger, challenging Botana's claims.

"There has been no study showing that they're going to save the taxpayers money. In fact, Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs have looked at the agencies enough to know that it would cost the taxpayers money," Chief Wirth stated.

Chief Wirth argues that differences in firefighters' pensions and equipment could significantly inflate costs.

"Ours and Bonita's are different equipment. So we would have to take all of our air packs, all of the masks that are issued, and we'd have to purchase that. So that would be $100,000 - $150,000 in initial costs right off the bat," he explained.

In response to the concerns raised by the fire chief, the Fort Myers Beach Fire District administration has taken the initiative to conduct a voluntary study. This study aims to outline the potential effects of merging the Iona and Fort Myers Beach districts. With Lee County hosting a total of 17 different fire districts, Wirth warns that merging could impact critical factors such as response time.

"If you go and put us all under one umbrella, our ability to respond to individual communities is going to be hampered," Chief Wirth cautioned.

As the legislative vote approaches, opposition from both fire chiefs and firefighters remains steadfast. Despite facing resistance, Botana has persisted, offering two different bills on this issue, with the first version, presented in October, being pulled back.