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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Bennett to fire district: Time to consolidate

State Senator Mike Bennett has told the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District that it's time to talk consolidation among Manatee County fire districts as a means of saving money - and finding enough funds and personnel to meet the state's "two-in, two-out rule" for firefighters at the scene of a structural blaze.

District voters defeated an ad valorem tax request by the district in the Nov. 2 elections, the third defeat this year for the tax. The money would have gone for additional firefighters.

WMFR Chief Andy Price told the board Nov. 18 that Bennett had informed him that any request to increase the annual district assessment above the current cap would be met with a stiff veto from Gov. Jeb Bush. Faced with that prospect and three defeats by the district voters the past year for an ad valorem tax, Bennett said it's time to consolidate.

"He said he was going to organize a meeting of fire districts," said Price, but he did not yet know the date. Price said he would push for fire chiefs and board members from all the county districts - including Bradenton and Longboat Key - to be at the meeting.

Price noted that consolidation has been discussed for a number of years, but nothing has taken place. Even talks between two districts about combining forces have dragged on for some time.

Now, however, Bennett may provide the push to get consolidation moving.

"If Tallahassee says there's going to be a merger, there's going to be a merger," said WMFRD board chairman Jesse Davis. "We can rant and rave all we want, but it will happen," he predicted.

"It's something we've been after for a long time," said board member Larry Tyler. "There are pros and cons for consolidation."

Price said that at the current assessment, the district budget for the next two years could be met, but after that, "future budgets will be extremely tight."

He also noted that at a recent house fire in Coral Shores, firemen took some extreme verbal abuse from the homeowner because they only had three firefighters on the scene and had to wait for backup before entering the burning building.

"We're going to be professionals and do everything we can," he said, but people have to understand that without funding for a fourth firefighter on the truck, there are times when firefighters won't be able to enter a burning building until extra personnel arrive.

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