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East County Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019 4 months ago

Possible merger heads toward referendum

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East Manatee, Myakka City will combine forces if residents give their blessing to merger.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

When lightning struck a home in GreyHawk Landing on July 19, East Manatee Fire Rescue District dispatched five fire engines.

In coordination, the Myakka City Fire Department moved one of its fire engines to East Manatee’s Station 5, just east of Lorraine Road, to fill the gap should another emergency arise in the greater Lakewood Ranch area.

East Manatee Fire Chief Lee Whitehurst and Myakka City Fire Chief Danny Cacchiotti said the districts assist each other

regularly, which makes the agencies combining a natural progression.

Fire commissioners from both districts July 22 supported moving forward with such a merger, and the agencies now have targeted Oct. 1, 2021, to make it happen. The change has to be approved by Myakka City residents through a referendum in August 2020 and by the state legislature the following year.

“For many years, our daily operations have been very close and paralleled with one another,” Cacchiotti said. “We’re going to continue to do that.”

The Myakka City Fire Department has a $2.24 million operating budget with two stations and 11 staff members, including a chief, nine firefighters and an office worker. East Manatee has an operating budget of $19.1 million with six stations (a seventh is under construction), a training tower, an administration building and 83 employees, including a chief, 69 firefighters and a team of administrative staff.

Whitehurst said East Manatee would not be adversely impacted by absorbing the Myakka City Fire Department. Myakka City Fire’s everyday fire engines are 5 and 7 years old, respectively, and are in good working condition. The equipment would be worked into East Manatee’s regular maintenance and replacement schedule, which is consistent with Myakka’s existing maintenance and replacement plans.

“This department isn’t broke,” Cacchiotti said. “The engines are all relatively new.”

From a staffing standpoint, Myakka City’s nine firefighters make less money than East Manatee’s firefighters — for example, about $64,000 for a lieutenant at Myakka compared to $74,000 for a lieutenant at East Manatee. However, Cacchiotti said Myakka City Fire has an overtime budget of more than $80,000 to pay firefighters covering shifts for others who are sick or on vacation. Whitehurst said that overtime pay won’t be needed any longer because East Manatee has four “floating” firefighters it uses for such occasions. The savings then would be spread out to accommodate salary changes for Myakka City’s firefighters.

“It works out math-wise,” Whitehurst said.

The major financial difference will be bringing Myakka City firefighters’ benefits in line with East Manatee’s. Whitehurst said costs are two times greater and that funding for those changes will be covered by the pending retirement of Cacchiotti, slated for October 2021, when the merger would become official. His $75,000 salary will be enough to cover the difference.

Whitehurst said Myakka City Fire Department firefighters would not stay at Myakka City but would rotate throughout East Manatee’s fire stations, as its other firefighters now do.

The departments plan to conduct more training exercises together over the coming year.

Whitehurst and Cacchiotti said a merger of the organizations has been discussed for decades. The districts actually prepared for a merger in 2001, but it was never formalized. That, however, resulted in the departments aligning their standard forms and policies, so many are already are the same or at least similar.

The fire districts anticipate publicizing the Aug. 20, 2020, referendum starting in February. The message to Myakka City residents will be that the change translates into savings for them. For example, on a 3,000-square-foot, $300,000 home, assessments would decrease from $553.75 to $452 for a property smaller than 10 acres.

“The message for Myakka City residents is: There are no exceptions. Everybody is going to see savings, if not break even,” Whitehurst said.

If voters approve the merger, the fire boards will meet again in 2020 to finalize moving forward. Then the districts will await the needed approvals from the state and county to make the merger a reality. The merger would be effective Oct. 1, 2021, under the plan.

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