Combined police, fire department may split in Fla.

Supporters say splitting police and fire would not cost much more and would improve communication and efficiency

By Ryan Mills
The Naples Daily News

NAPLES, Fla. — Batman and Robin, Laurel and Hardy — some teams aren't meant to be split.

That's not necessarily the case with police and fire operations in the city of Naples, some officials say.

For the second time in just over two years, the Naples City Council is set to discuss dividing the Naples Police and Fire Department into two distinct departments with separate directors.

The discussion is set for a workshop starting at 8:30 a.m. today in council chambers at City Hall on Eighth Street South.

A similar measure failed on a 4-3 vote in June 2008, in part because some council members at the time were concerned about the prospect of adding a new department to the city's structure during rough economic times.

City Manager Bill Moss insists splitting the department in two won't cost much, if anything, and will improve communication and efficiency. With new players involved — overall Department Chief Tom Weschler, Fire Chief Steve McInerny, and more importantly City Councilmen Sam Saad and Doug Finlay — Moss believes now is as good a time as ever for a second shot.

"If there are downsides, I can't see them," Moss said.

The city's police and fire departments were merged in 1995, shortly after then-Fire Chief Tom Smith and then-Police Chief Paul Reble retired. After the consolidation, the department director was called the Chief of Police and Emergency Services, and fire operations were managed by a deputy chief.

Moss, Weschler and McInerny all agree that, historically, the fire department has gotten the short end of the stick under the consolidated set-up. The department director has always come from the police side, which officials say has made it harder for some of the fire department's concerns to rise to the level where they are evaluated by decision-makers in the city.

At budget time, the two sides fight over the same pot of money, McInerny said.

"I can tell you, unequivocally, that the city of Naples fire department has been marginalized by this public safety concept," McInerny said. "The fire department's voice, the fire department's needs ... have been neglected. I would even say in some cases — not all — ignored. That really has been because the fire department didn't have a voice at the table with the city manager at a department head level."

The fire department is understaffed, Moss said, which is why the City Council recently approved two additional firefighter positions. The department will have 63 firefighters once the new firefighters are hired, putting its staffing level on par with its staffing level in the early 1990s.

If the department is split, McInerny officially would be promoted to department director and would report directly to Moss instead of to Weschler. However, Moss said McInerny, who earns $113,000 a year, wouldn't get a pay increase because his salary is already in line with other department heads. Weschler earns $129,082 a year.

"The communication is very big," Weschler said. "If there is something on the fire end, Steve should be able to reach out directly to the city manager, or if the City Council has an inquiry, reach out to them instead of having to go through me."

The City Council rejected a similar proposal in 2008, with current council members Gary Price and Dee Sulick joined in the majority by then-council members Bill Willkomm and Penny Taylor. At the time, Willkomm said the city needed "another bureaucracy like a submarine needs a screen door."

Saad and Finlay joined the council in February, replacing Willkomm and Taylor. When asked about the proposal, Finlay said he's "open to listening to arguments" but is "definitely leaning toward separation."

"All you're doing is cutting bureaucracy by allowing a cleaner line of communication between the fire chief and the city manager," Finlay said.

To Saad, it's all about economics.

"If we can increase public safety without increasing costs, then we should do it," he said.

For all intents and purposes, they already are.

While on paper McInerny reports to Weschler, he said in actuality he's been reporting to Moss. It's a situation Weschler called awkward.

"I think they deserve to have their own identity," Weschler said of the fire department, "and with that comes their own director."

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