Fla. Fire chief wants casino money for emergency services

The county has more than $1 million banked from casino contributions and none has gone to the fire department

By Greg Stanley
The Naples Daily News

NAPLES, Fla. — As gambling revenue continues to climb at Seminole Casino Immokalee, Collier County has banked more than $1 million in payments from the tribe.

At least some of that money, which is meant to offset costs of local government in lieu of taxes, should come back to Immokalee for fire protection and other services, said Paul Anderson, chief of the Immokalee Fire Control District.

But county officials have earmarked the funds for economic development initiatives and will consider a proposal Tuesday to spend $500,000 of the casino money over the next two years on a business incubator program designed to encourage entrepreneurship.

"The whole purpose of the gaming impact revenue is to offset the impact casinos have on local governments," Anderson said. "But Immokalee has received zero dollars since this compact has been in place."

The local share of casino revenue is a relatively new deal.

The municipalities and counties that are home to the tribe's seven Florida casinos started getting a cut of the hundreds of millions of dollars of tribal casino profits in spring 2011.

Florida's gaming contract with the tribe, which doesn't pay local taxes as a federal entity, gives local governments 3 percent of the state's annual share of the gambling revenue.

The state receives a minimum payment of $250 million a year and it climbs based on how much money the casinos rake in.

Local shares from the three Seminole casinos in Broward County are split among the Broward County government and several cities that house and surround the casinos. But because Immokalee isn't an incorporated city, the local share here goes entirely to Collier County.

The county hauled in about $265,000 in 2011, $313,000 in 2012 and $490,000 in 2013. Over the last three years the county has been pooling the annual payments and is now sitting with a little more than $1 million.

Anderson, who heads a cash-strapped fire department that has struggled to keep a full staff since 2011, wants the county to set aside a chunk of the local share for Immokalee fire.

"The casino is expanding and just broke ground on a hotel," Anderson said. "And what they're saying is, the gaming revenue was intended to go toward helping to provide fire protection. Well, Immokalee Fire Control District is a local governing body, but the county controls that money and they're not willing to give us any."

In recent years, Immokalee Fire has contracted with the casino on its own, providing fire services for $125,000 a year.

The county hasn't spent any of its casino revenue yet — in Immokalee or elsewhere.

In 2010, County Manager Leo Ochs and Collier commissioners designated the funds to be used for economic development initiatives.

"At the time, we knew that Lee County was sitting with $25 million for economic development and we didn't have anything," Ochs said. "I thought his would at least be a start — a small start — to have a dedicated funding source."

At this week's regular commission meeting, Ochs will recommend that commissioners approve spending $500,000 of the casino money over the next two years on two business incubators -- one that would serve aspiring technology companies or start-ups in urban Collier County and a second that would encourage start-up food businesses in Immokalee.

The proposed 10-year project would use a total of $3.8 million in public seed money — $2.5 million from the state and 1.3 million from the county — and another $1.2 million in private sector investment to create the two incubators. Ochs said the return on investment — through anticipated new businesses and jobs — is going to be 10 to 20 times the amount of taxpayer money put into the program over the next 10 years.

"Basically we've been socking away money or the last three years trying to get ready for a project that would bring the benefits that these two facilities will bring," Ochs said. "There will be a very direct benefit to the Immokalee area and the rest of the county."


(c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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