Talks between West Manatee Fire Rescue and Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue districts are under way to determine if merging the two districts is a viable idea that would save taxpayer money.
WMFR Chief Andy Price cautioned that the talks are just preliminary.
“We’ve only had one meeting and there’s a lot more to be done,” Price said.
Speaking at the WMFR district commission meeting Aug. 18, Price said officials of both districts are collecting information on organization and funding of each district to exchange as the first step. Several more meetings would then take place to determine if consolidation is feasible.
If both commissions agree consolidation appears “favorable,” Price said an unbiased feasibility study would be needed from a professional company to determine if consolidation would work, and a report on the process to implement consolidation and how the new district would be organized.
Price was involved in the May 2000 consolidation of the Anna Maria and West Side fire districts — a nearly three-year process — and knows from experience it’s not just “a few meetings and then a vote,” he said.
He estimated it would take a minimum of two years of meetings and study, then a referendum by voters of both districts and an act of the Florida Legislature before consolidation would occur.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Price said.
One main issue is funding. Cedar Hammock obtains revenue through an ad valorem tax on properties within its boundaries, while WMFR uses an assessment for revenue.
“Consolidation always sounds good, but we need to make sure it is good,” he said.
Price has long advocated consolidating the county’s 12 independent fire districts into a single entity, but the obstacle has always been who would pay for the feasibility study. Price and other fire district chiefs want Manatee County to fund the study, while the county commission has declined to fund it.
In other business, WMFR commissioners passed the first reading of the $5.287.5 million 2011-12 budget.
But not before Holmes Beach City Commissioner Al Robinson spoke against the budget, noting that 85 percent of the budget revenue is for salaries and benefits. That figure is much too high, Robinson said, and any pay increase is unjustified in these difficult economic times.
Price also updated the board on remodeling and refurbishing of Station No. 1 in Holmes Beach.
“We anticipate completion in late October or early November,” the chief said.
The project includes expansion of living facilities for firefighters, more room for equipment storage, a new air-conditioning system and improved building insulation.
Commissioners also voted Jesse Davis as the secretary-treasurer to replace former Commissioner John Rigney’s function on the board. Rigney had to give up his commission seat when he moved out of the district in May.
The final public hearing for the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at the WMFR administration building, 6477 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.