Bonita Springs Fire District and Lee County leaders said they are closer to putting out a legal fire sparked by a longtime emergency services dispute.
"This is the first time since we have been doing this ... that we actually have some direction," said Bonita Springs Fire Chief Joseph Daigle.
Bonita Springs Fire District and the county have been at odds over ambulances for about three years.
The fire district has twice applied ¬— in 2010 and in 2012 — for a certification that would allow it to provide four 24-hour ambulances and hospital transport. Lee County, which currently provides the district with two 24-hour ambulances and one 12-hour ambulance, has denied the fire district’s application each time.
As a result of the impasse, the fire district in April filed to enter conflict resolution procedures with the county, a requirement under state law before government agencies can sue each other. In October, Lee moved three county EMS stations from Bonita Springs fire houses to hotels after the district said it would start charging the county rent, a first in their 20-year relationship.
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For about 45 minutes Monday afternoon, the two groups came together in front of about 50 people at a Bonita Springs fire station. The points they discussed emerged from six months of negotiations between the fire district and Lee County staff. By the end of Monday’s meeting, representatives from both sides said they have a general framework that might keep them out of court.
Bonita Springs Fire Commission Chairman Steve Lohan shared what he referred to as "an agreement in principle," that aimed to keep all emergency medical services within the same system while providing the fire district with "enhanced" ambulance coverage.
The Bonita Springs Fire District agreed to operate ambulances under the county’s certificate of public convenience and necessity (COPCN) instead of pursuing its own, which would put the fire district under the authority of Lee’s medical director.
The fire district would be part of the county-wide billing system and would follow the county’s data and information collection procedures for response times and other operations statistics.
"There’s one hand on the stopwatch and that’s it," Lee Public Safety Director Rob Farmer said.
In exchange, the district could move forward with plans to supply and equip four ambulances stationed at its own fire houses. Lee County would provide one paramedic for each ambulance and the fire district would supply at least one emergency medical technician per unit. Bonita ambulances would provide mutual aid and response to adjoining districts if needed.
The district’s ambulances would operate under a two-year pilot program, and the county would periodically review their performance. Lohan said the fire district is on board with the evaluations.
"I think we will know far before the end of the two-year agreement if (the pilot program is) just a complete disaster," he said.
Though this consensus is a step forward in what has been a heated disagreement, more specific details could stall talks again. For example, Lee and the fire district have to sort out how they plan to share revenue, though Farmer and County Manager Roger Desjarlais.
Desjarlais emphasized at the meeting that finding a solution hinges on this being a "revenue neutral" deal for the county.
"‘Revenue neutral’ for Lee County simply means costs do not increase as a result of this partnership," he said.
Bonita Springs Fire District officials maintain that will not be a problem.
Lee County also requested that Bonita Springs Fire District paramedics meet Lee County training requirements. Daigle said his fire district will easily comply because his employees already have years of experience.
"It’s like trying to ask Brett Farve if he knows how to throw a pass," he said, adding that the district could get its ambulance program up and running within a year.
Lee County and fire district commissioners have to give the framework preliminary approval before negotiations can continue. The goal is to have Lee County commissioners review the deal at their last meeting of the year, which is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17, at commission chambers at the Old Lee County Courthouse, 2120 Main Street, downtown Fort Myers.
If both boards accept the terms, only then could the agencies put together a final agreement. But Daigle said the Bonita Springs Fire District plans to follow through with its lawsuit should these negotiations fail.
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