Chris Spencer, President of Local 2297 speaking with Commissioners during a heated exchange. (Submitted Photo/Travis Anderson)
At present, Fire Commissioners were presented with two options: enter into an agreement with Labelle CPA to provide oversight for payroll and accounts payable functions or contract with North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District to do the same. The argument is that while Labelle CPA is capable of working with IFD staff, the need exists for IFD to hire additional administrative staff to assist with processing payroll and accounts payable functions in-house. On the other hand, North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District has an excellent track record of meeting the financial requirements and is capable of taking over these functions for far less than what the cost would be for the Immokalee Fire Control District to not only contract with Labelle CPA, but to hire an additional IFD employee. Instead of deciding, Fire Commissioners choose to kick the can down the road against the advice of senior members from North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District. Things got heated as discussions then turned to the topic of signing off on Fire Chief Anderson’s new contract. Chris Spencer, President of Local 2297 spoke out against the decision Fire Commissioners made to give Chief Anderson a $15,000 pay increase when the department is still struggling to meet the financial reporting requirements and when firefighters were told just weeks ago that there was no money in the budget this year for a cost-of-living increase. The only increase firefighters received came in the way of increased incentive money for additional certifications they work to obtain. For some, this increase equates to less than a 1% overall increase. Commissioner Ann Goodnight quickly stepped in and told Spencer that he needed to sit down and that the Board was not going to listen to anything more of what he had to say. Commissioner Goodnight quickly ended all further public comment on the matter to which some called ‘unethical’ considering this matter is of public interest and the meetings are open to the public. In disgust with what they had just heard, firefighters in attendance quickly got up and walked out of the meeting, frustrated that Chief Anderson received a substantial pay increase even though there have been several issues with his performance. Commissioners even commented that they were blindsided by the fact that not only was Chief Anderson’s vehicle involved in a vehicle versus pedestrian crash last year that went unreported to law enforcement and to Fire Commissioners, they indicated that they had no knowledge he was working with the department’s insurance company to settle the claim that the other party filed against the department. Chief Anderson also installed blue emergency lights on the department vehicles which by law is not currently permitted on fire-related emergency vehicles. While the Board of Fire Commissioners decided to eliminate incentive pay in the Chief’s salary, the Board actually gave the Chief more money than he proposed. In fact, Chief Anderson who was making roughly $103,000 with incentives, asked for an increase which would have brought his salary to approximately $114,000 with incentives. In a strange twist, Commissioners actually eliminated his incentive pay, but instead agreed to pay the Chief approximately $118,000. To put that into perspective, Chief Anderson who was making just over $49.00 per hour, will now be making over $56.00 per hour. It’s estimated that in the three and a half years that the Chief has been employed by the department, his salary has increased roughly 25%. While Chief Anderson makes less than other Fire Chief’s in Collier County, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Immokalee Fire Control District has previously sought voter approval for a millage rate increase in order to help cover expenses. Additionally, the department has considered asking the voters to approve a fire assessment fee to help bring in additional revenue. Decisions like this leave some wondering if the choice to give the Chief such a significant increase was the right thing to do. Following the meeting, Commissioner Goodnight sent an email to each Fire Commissioner and the Chief asking that Chief Anderson bring back a contract from Labelle CPA for review at the November Fire Board meeting. No other CPA firm was mentioned in the email and with the deadline looming, it appears as though Commissioner Goodnight is advocating for a contract with just one CPA firm in particular. In addition, Commissioner Goodnight stated in her email that going forward, the department’s attorney, Ken Thompson, would now review and approval all items on the agenda leaving some to wonder if Thompson’s role has changed from legal advisor to decision-maker. This question was raised following a heated exchange at the same meeting where Thompson was allowed to verbally belittle Deputy Chief Choate by telling him that until he becomes an attorney, he’s not to tell members of the public at the public meeting that they are free to speak. An attempt to obtain a statement from Commissioner Goodnight was unsuccessful. A public records request was made to the the Immokalee Fire Control District, but at the time this article was written, the department has not yet provided a copy of the settlement agreement pertaining to the crash involving Chief Anderson’s vehicle or a copy of Attorney Ken Thompson’s contract with the department.
The regular Fire Commissioner meeting on Thursday was anything but ‘normal.’ For months now, Fire Commissioners have mulled over financial data in an effort to meet the auditing recommendations given by their auditor Tuscan & Company. In fact, some of these issues are the same issues the department has faced for years.