City council moves forward on charter review

Bobby Keefe, Monica Clark, Mayor Dowling R. Watford, Jr., Bob Jarriel, Wes Abney/Special to the Lake Okeechobee News

OKEECHOBEE — At their meeting on July 21, the Okeechobee City Council adopted a resolution to create a Citizens’ Charter Review Advisory Committee (CCRAC.) The committee will consist of seven members and one alternate. Each council member will appoint one committee member, and the other two and the alternate will be appointed by the entire council. Any member who fails to attend three consecutive meetings will be automatically removed from the committee.

Okeechobee Department of Health supervisor Tiffany Collins gave an update on the COVID-19 situation in Okeechobee. She said the free, asymptomatic testing offered at the DOH on Saturday, July 18 did not have the turnout they expected. Only 259 people showed up. They were hoping to show the state the need for more asymptomatic testing in Okeechobee. They had an opportunity to have a mobile test unit capable of testing up to 1,000 people, but the turnout on Saturday was not enough to show the state we needed that caliber of testing here, she said. She can’t tell the state we need more testing when the 500 spots for testing they did make available were not even filled. “I just don’t have an argument for that,” she said.

She expressed some frustration, because she attends meeting after meeting and gives everyone guidance on how to combat the infection, but the numbers keep climbing. She asked the council members to tell her how she could help them, what she could do differently.

“Instead of me spewing at you what I think we need to do, I’d like to take an opportunity to let you tell me what you’d like me to tell you,” she said. “What do you guys think should happen? What can I do different? What can I say to you that will stop this? What can we do? What should we do? How come people aren’t wearing their masks? What can I say to you that would get people to care enough to change?”

Mayor Dowling Watford said, “I think you’ve beat that horse as much as you can beat it. I think until you are affected by it or a member of your family is affected by it, you just don’t realize how serious it is.” He went on to say that he thinks there are a lot of people who do not believe the government has the right to tell them to wear a mask. He also believes that since the town has opened back up again, a lot of people take that to mean everything is OK, and many young people are of the mindset that nothing bad is going to happen to them.

Councilman Bob Jarriel said he understood how confusing it is for people, because five different doctors will say five different things. He believes nothing will change until someone makes decisions. “When I was in school, I don’t remember my parents getting three choices about school. You want to go to school? You want to do it virtual? It’s gotten out of hand, because nobody wants to make a decision. Unless somebody takes it seriously, no matter what the issue is, it’s not gonna happen. If we are going to wear masks, it’s gotta be enforced.”

Councilman Bobby Keefe said, “We are dealing with people who have free will and their own belief systems, so it’s going to continue to be an uphill battle.”

Councilwoman Monica Clark expressed her frustration about getting testing for her employees. They must be tested before they can work, because if they cannot present a letter stating they are negative, they cannot work in healthcare environments. They finally found a way to get tests done on their own, without the help of the DOH, and she said she understood the nursing home was doing the same thing. She believes the testing on Saturday was a little too late. “If you’ve been in contact with someone, and your livelihood depends on that, then I think they should have the option to get tested,” she said.

Collins said there has been a misunderstanding within the business community all along. She said healthcare workers and first responders were the only ones who were supposed to do the test-based strategy to return to work. “That was never for the general business community. The business community heard that strategy and took that as ‘I need to have my employees tested to return to work.’ There is a symptom-based strategy that should have been the return to work strategy.” The test-based strategy is no longer recommended even for healthcare workers, with some rare exceptions she said.

Council woman Clark asked Collins if youth-sized masks had been supplied to the schools, but she was told the only masks given to the schools were for the staff and were distributed by the emergency operations center. The EOC has requested more masks but was told the state has no more masks. When Council woman Clark asked where they would get masks for the kids going back to school, Collins replied, “The state has no more masks. I handed one of the cloth masks to my 8th-grade daughter and told her to figure it out, and she figured it out. All I can tell you is the state has no more masks.”

In other business, a maximum millage rate of 8.6018 was recommended by staff for the budget year 2020/2021. This is 1 mill over the city’s current millage rate. (One mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of property value.) Mayor Watford explained this would be the maximum rate they could use. This does not mean it would be the rate they would actually be using. If at some point during the year the need arose to go over the maximum, they would be required to mail every taxpayer in the city and notify them of the change.

Councilman Bob Jarriel said he would vote against raising the millage rate. “We are trying to save the taxpayers money, and we need to learn to balance a budget without increasing taxes.”

After some discussion, the council voted to set the maximum millage rate to 8.6018, with Councilman Jarriel casting a dissenting vote.

Budget workshops were scheduled for Aug. 12 and Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. Public hearings will be held on Thursday, Sept. 3 and Monday, Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. All to be held in council chambers. The regular council meetings in September will be held on those dates as well.

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