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Rent Dispute Takes Florida County EMS Out of Firehouses and Into Hotels

A dispute over a $200,000 yearly rental fee may end in Lee County EMS moving its ambulances and personnel out of Bonita Springs fire stations and into three local hotels.

Until the county Facilities and Public Safety departments find long-term sites, 16 emergency medical technicians and paramedics will temporarily relocate to hotels by Thursday, County Emergency Services Director Rob Farmer said. He declined to name the hotels because deals were still being finalized. Officials said there is no anticipated effect on response times.

County officials were notified about Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue District's intent to charge roughly $27 per square foot for rent two months ago, Farmer said, noting that in comparison, EMS leases space in Cape Coral for $6.50 per square foot.

"It's equivalent to what we pay at other facilities," Farmer said of the Cape Coral rent, adding that Bonita Springs Fire Chief Joe Daigle rejected that fee.

Instead, Farmer said Daigle showed him the county was paying more than $84,000 - $17.39 per square foot - for a Supervisor of Elections office at Bonita Commons Shopping Center.

Farmer denied the move had anything to do with a lawsuit filed by the district last spring after county commissioners' denial of a three-year quest by the district to provide its own ambulance service. The district proposal would increase the number of vehicles operating in Bonita from 2 1/2 to three or four, and free EMS ambulances for the rest of the county.

"We're not being retaliatory. We're saying, 'Whoa, $200,000? Let's talk about that. We tried," Farmer said, adding that county officials must search for the best deal for taxpayers. The short-term housing option will save taxpayers an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 annually, the county reported.

Asked whether he considered the move retaliatory, Daigle laughed and said: "You be the judge of that."

The fire district sued the county because Daigle said it's the only Lee County district in 30 years that was denied the right to operate its own ambulance service. He denied the rental fee was retaliatory, pointing out it's common for districts to charge a usage fee.

"They've been rent free the whole time," he said of EMS. "We've never charged them anything in 20-plus years."

He noted the elections office rental is just office space at $17.39 per square foot and the fire marshal was unable to find "comparables" for what the district provides EMS.

"We have showers, we have beds, full cooking facilities, weight lifting, a gym, and we pay electric, cable and water," Daigle said. "This isn't just office space. We're talking about living quarters for three people 24/7."

Daigle said he learned about the relocation when a commissioner called Tuesday to say it was on a news website. He contended there was never a counteroffer to his rent proposal and denied rejecting a much lower proposal by Farmer, saying Farmer never put any proposals in writing, as he was required to.

The two sides have been working for months on a cooperative cost-sharing agreement.

Emails obtained by the Daily News show that on Sept. 26, at Farmer's request, Daigle sent a detailed proposal in which EMS and the district would share EMS costs, with the district providing firehouses for EMS personnel and paying $1 million for four ambulances. The email included two rent options - the annual rent of $200,000 or $16,666.67 monthly.

However, any rent paid would be returned and there would be no rent going forward once the county signed the agreement and the new ambulances were active.

The proposal split personnel costs 50-50. The county would provide disposable medical equipment. The district would provide four ambulances, maintain them, pay fuel costs, liability insurance, depreciation costs, and provide and maintain communications equipment. The district suggested it receive 60 percent of net collections for transportation fees for covering most costs.

On Oct. 2, Daigle emailed Farmer the 60-40 collections proposal again, saying he assumed the lack of response meant Lee County had no interest in using its fire houses. Nearly four hours later, Farmer replied, saying Lee would pay monthly rent.

Farmer said they told the district during negotiations that they'd pursue other alternatives and that's why they chose the monthly option. However, he said the county would be open to further negotiations.

Daigle also said the district's goal is to work with the county, but believed they were heading toward an agreement that would be discussed at a Dec. 9 public meeting.

"We had tentatively agreed to a 60-40 split and that's what's so perplexing about it."



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