Thanks to votes at their recent Board of Fire Commissioner meetings, the Holley-Navarre, Midway and Navarre Beach fire departments are moving forward with the idea of merging together into one department.
Holley-Navarre Fire District’s Board of Fire Commissioners voted Monday to move forward with talks of merging, while Midway Fire’s Board of Fire Commissioners voted last Tuesday to move forward with merger discussions.
Navarre Beach Fire Department was the first to OK merger talks at their meeting earlier this month.
Talks about merging the departments together has come up in past discussions in the departments, but numerous setbacks always pushed the idea to the back burner.
The idea is simple, according to HNFD Fire Chief Ron Norton, who was approached by MFD Chief Jonathan Kanzigg about the idea of the merger: streamline the departments.
“Each district kind of does their own thing now and we all have liabilities like managing staff, overhead…if we can streamline it and become more effective and save taxpayers money, it could be beneficial,” Norton said.
Kanzigg said talks of consolidating the departments is nothing new mentioning the fact that he and Norton, most recently, had spoken about consolidating the departments a year and a half ago.
“He wasn’t ready to do it at the time. But now is the time and all of the agencies are on board,” Kanzigg said.
Kanzigg stated he heard about the positive side of department consolidation at a Fire Chiefs Conference in South Florida back in 2015.
“At that conference I met several chiefs that had consolidated their departments. And the ones that had done that had a lower millage rate and better staffing,” Kanzigg said noting that there is also a need for more fire stations in the south end of the county like on the Okaloosa/Santa Rosa County line. “We had an International Association of Firefighters geographical study done years ago and it showed where we should have stations in order for us to be a ‘perfect district’…and there is a need for more stations to keep response times low.”
Kanzigg said he took the advice from the chiefs at the conference to heart and approached the heads at NBFD and HNFD about the possibility of merging.
Before the merge can even happen, the departments would have to conduct a feasibility study to see if the merger would be beneficial to the departments and to the taxpayers financially.
Kanzigg said the feasibility study would look at things like how each department is currently funded and if they’d be able to handle merging based on their current capital. It would also look at impact fees through each department.
Capt. Danny Fureigh with NBFD said the vote for the department earlier this month to get into talks over a merger was a no-brainer, considering most of the departments in the south end of the county respond and help each other out during fire and medical calls.
“There are just so many benefits (to merging), and with the growth (in the south end of the county), now is the time,” Fureigh said.
Although the departments voted to move ahead with talks of the merger, the merger itself probably won’t happen overnight, according to Norton since legislative action might have to occur.
“All three of the departments are funded differently. Everyone in those districts pays a different tax. So we’d have to figure out how we are funded…it’s why we need the feasibility study,” Norton said. “It would have to go to the vote of the people (on a ballot). Each district would have to vote in favor of it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
That means, along with a merger vote on the ballot, residents who live in the fire districts would also have to vote on what the departments ultimately decide on as their set millage rate.
Much like the courthouse matter that was on the ballot several years ago, ultimately voters would have to vote on two things: yes or no on a set tax rate and also if they want the merger to happen. Ultimately the latter would have to be OK’d in order for the merger to even take place.
“I think we’ll know in a year if it’s going to be on the ballot…and I’m confident the people will vote for it,” Kanzigg said, noting that the one of the biggest purposes of consolidating is to save taxpayers money. “The goal is to improve service and save tax dollars. I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to not only save money now, but down the line as well. This would be a lifetime change.”
Kanzigg told South Santa Rosa News he personally sat down with Norton over lunch yesterday (Thursday) to get an idea of when to hold the joint meeting with all of the departments to get the idea of the merger rolling.
“I’m hoping to figure out when that meeting will be in the next week or so…and we’ll certainly let the public know when it will happen,” Kanzigg said, noting the meeting will be open to the public if they want to attend or have input.
Fureigh noted that if the departments merge, the firefighters themselves won’t gain much out of it other than the consolidation of services.
“Firefighters won’t benefit too much, besides better equipment, etcetera,” Fureigh said. “All stations will be Advanced Life Support, (and will have) better allocation of equipment.”
One example of that is the fact that NBFD has a rescue boat, which could be utilized in other areas across the south end of the county other than on Navarre Beach.
Out of all of the fire department agencies, Midway is the oldest, having formed in 1963. Holley-Navarre Fire Department was formed shortly after in 1965. And Navarre Beach Fire Department was established in the early 80’s.