Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Venice Wavers on Merger Cost | City Will Revisit Issue of Consolidation in May, after More Study and Talks with County

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Venice Wavers on Merger Cost | City Will Revisit Issue of Consolidation in May, after More Study and Talks with County

Article excerpt

FIRE SERVICES

VENICE -- The future of the Venice Fire Department could be decided in mid-May as city leaders debate whether to fold the department into Sarasota County's fire services.

But City Council leaders still have many questions about whether consolidation with the Sarasota County Fire Department is the best move for city taxpayers, and there are financial issues that need to be resolved, they told county commissioners during a joint meeting of the two groups Thursday in Venice.

Outstanding is a frank discussion among City Council members about whether they, as well as city officials and residents, are comfortable with a much-debated $4.5 million contribution that Sarasota County would require to pay for vehicles and equipment replacement.

"We don't have the funds to pay it up front or in installments, and if we do have to pay those funds, I would rather take those funds and invest it in my own fire department," Councilman Rich Cautero said. "I think we have some soul searching to do as a council to be able to come to an agreement on some aspects of this issue before we go forward."

The City Council unanimously voted to give themselves until mid- May to further examine the financing of the deal and for city and county staff to continue negotiations.

The merger question has been an issue for several years, though talks started in earnest about a year ago between Venice City Manager Ed Lavallee and Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer, driven in part by the increased costs of the city's firefighter pensions. In 2015, pensions for firefighters were expected to consume 33 percent of the department's annual operating budget.

During more than two and a half hours of debate and discussion on Thursday, Sarasota County commissioners made clear that they are willing to accept a merger deal under certain conditions. But City Council members clearly still disagree about the potential costs and changes to fire service in the city.

The primary obstacle in negotiations between staff is whether the city should be responsible for paying the $4.5 million sum.

That figure would "catch up" the vehicles and equipment in the county's existing replacement cycle, which is constantly fully funded, explained County Administrator Harmer. …

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