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Fire departments will not merge, but debate will keep smoldering

Up next: Feasibility study for Fort Myers Beach, Iona McGregor
Posted at 4:42 PM, Nov 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-30 16:55:08-05

FORT MYERS, Fla — The Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, and Iona McGregor Fire Departments will stay independent agencies.

For now.

Thursday morning, State Representative Adam Botana decided not to open up public discussion about his proposed bill to merge the departments at a the Lee County Legislative Delegation meeting.

He said he's holding off on the plan, but only for a year.

“We told them this morning we're not just going to kick the can down the road," Rep. Botana said.

His plan has drawn criticism from the departments since it was announced several weeks ago. He said a consolidation would save tax-payer money.

"These fire districts need to start looking at the bigger picture," Rep. Botana said. "You know what can we combine where can we combine to make it better? It's not just saving money it's boots on the ground."

And the people who wear the boots on the ground say the pause on the bill is a good move.

"I was hoping it would be pulled before the meeting, so the public wouldn't have to come sign up and talk but nonetheless it was good it worked out like it did," Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief, Scott Wirth said.

The pause gives the Fort Myers Beach and the Iona McGregor Fire Districts time to work on a feasibility study that shows taxpayers how the merger could impact them. After the study, Rep. Botana plans to bring up the bill again next fall.

"The first time it came up we were just going to pin it…put it to the people," Rep. Botana said. "It is surprising that fire chiefs, certain fire chiefs don't want to give the voters the opportunity to speak."

"I hope he will follow the data," Chief Wirth said. "From the beginning Representative Botana has been opposed to doing a study. He was originally opposed allowing the people to have the vote, but he changed that in the second version of his bill."

Next week, Fort Myers Beach and Iona Mcgregor plan to start the feasibility study.

Lawmakers from Lee County also heard from the public about several other possible bills, at this meeting. About 100 people showed up to speak. Many of them came to show support for a bill that would put Captiva's building height restrictions into law. Right now, Lee County is looking at changing those restrictions, so the South Seas Resort can build higher and have more rooms. A lawyer for the resort said the bill takes away private property rights.

On the subject of a possible mayor of Lee County, a position that would take over much of what the county manager does now, a couple of people asked that the position be non-partisan.In the end, lawmakers decided to keep talking about it and hold off on trying to pass the bill next year.

They also decided to have more workshops and get more input on a bill that would change how Lee County voters elect district commissioners.