City council votes to ask for new fire contract

OKEECHOBEE — Many items concerning the interlocal fire agreement between the City of Okeechobee and Okeechobee County have been resolved, but there is still a hold up, because the county does not want to open the union contract. According to City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca, the county will not hire any of the city’s firefighters who are not paramedics. In addition, they will not recognize rank. The city’s new hires would actually end up having an increase in pay, because they would go in as paramedics. The senior firefighters would be taking a cut in pay. The city would need to pay compensation to the remaining six employees at the city fire department as well.

Councilman Bob Jarriel said when he looks at the figures provided, it looks like four of the firefighter who move to the county will be making more money than they make now. The other three will make less, and Montes de Oca agreed this was correct. Councilman Jarriel suggested paying those three firefighter the amount they make now and getting the money by selling the equipment/trucks to the county. This means the city would be paying the difference in the salaries at least for the first year.

Mayor Dowling Watford said he believed they had already agreed to give the equipment to the county.

Fire Chief Herb Smith said his men wanted to know what the salaries would be before they committed to going to the county. He also expressed concern about the probationary period the men would be subject to. He did not believe it was fair to them to put that condition on them. “It gives them 12 more months to worry about their jobs,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t like them, now that’s hanging over their head.” He said all of the men are willing to go over, but they want to know what their financial situation will be, and they do not think the probationary period is fair.

Councilman Wes Abney agreed he did not like the idea of a probationary period. He also said he felt if the city would be saving approximately $600,000 a year, and it would only take about $20,000 to make up the difference in the salaries, he thought they should consider it. He said before they considered that, they needed to know what the compensation would be on the employees who would not be going to the county so they would know exactly how much money they would be saving.

Mayor Watford said he did not understand why the county did not want to take on the three extra employees whose salaries would have been paid for by the city. He was speaking of the plan the Fire Merge Task Force came up with in their meetings last month. The county would agree to take all the fire fighters who wanted to transfer over, and the city would pay the salaries of the additional firefighters until the county actually needed to hire additional firefighters. At that time, the county would begin paying the salaries. As a former business man, he said he would have jumped at the chance to have three employees he didn’t have to pay for. “I just don’t understand, but that was their choice to make,” he said.

Councilman Bobby Keefe reminded the council the reason they started the merge/consolidation/contract a year ago was to save the city taxpayers money. He said there would be some expenses in the beginning as they transitioned, but in the long run, they would be achieving that goal.

Council woman Monica Clark said at the last county commission meeting, they said they would not be ready to sign a contract until at least next May or June. She said she was tired of having the fire discussions and if there was nothing that could be done for a year they should consider putting it off until at least after the election, because she felt the election might be affecting the discussions. “Honestly, I’m done with this for right now,” she said. “It’s hard to do a contract with someone who doesn’t want to do a contract.” She went on to say that in the first presentation by the county, they said they would take three EMTs and three paramedics. “In that time frame, they have hired EMTs. Until March, they were advertising for EMTs.”

Councilman Jarriel said he would at least like the buyout costs for the six employees and suggested the city and county attorney get together to come up with a new contract.

Council woman Clark suggested they hold off until it was closer to the time the county would be negotiating their collective bargaining agreement next year, but Councilman Jarriel said, “We’ve been working since last July, and I think if we put it off again, we’re just gonna keep kicking it down the road. We’re in this far, I think we need to at least go to the next step and see if we can get an agreement.”

Captain Lalo Rodriguez of the Okeechobee City Fire Department said he agreed with Council woman Clark that it would be wise to wait. He said the county made it pretty obvious they are not going to take any EMTs, and all the city firefighters are still EMTs. They won’t be certified until June at the earliest. “Why not just hold off and do this as a whole?” he asked.

Frank Williamson of the economic council reminded the council the contract would save the city $600,000 to $650,000 a year. The economic council thinks you should accept the proposal the county sent over,” he said.

In the end, the council voted to get the costs for the buyout on the employees who would not be going over to the county and to ask for a new contract from the county. The motion was opposed by Councilwoman Clark and Mayor Watford.

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