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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Fire district merger talks set for Jan. 7

State Sen. Mike Bennett told the West Manatee Fire and Rescue District board at its Dec. 16 meeting that after three election defeats in 2004 for a district-wide ad valorem tax for additional revenues, it's "only a matter of time" before the district is faced with a budget crisis.

Rather than wait for that to occur, Bennett said the time has come to talk about consolidating Manatee County's 13 separate fire districts.

In a letter to West Manatee Fire and Rescue Chief Andy Price, Bennett said he's invited all the various fire chiefs and respective board chairpersons in the county to a 9 a.m. meeting Jan. 7 at the Sudakoff Center at New College for "open discussion" on potential mergers and cost savings.

Bennett said it's clear from the voters' decisions that merger may be the only answer to meet future budget increases.

While only fire chiefs and board chairs have been officially invited, the meeting will be open to the public and a number of WMFR firefighters said they planned to attend.

In other business, the board declined to discuss the recent demotion of Chief Steve Pontious.

"There is a grievance process" for Pontious to go through, said board member Larry Tyler. "We're here [tonight] to make policies, not hear grievances, but we will shortly. That's a personnel problem and not for the public record at this time."

Commissioners also agreed it's time to look at a new ladder engine to replace the aging ladder truck that has cost the district a considerable amount of money in maintenance.