City, county discuss fire protection

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Council and Okeechobee County commissioners sat down together along with Okeechobee County Fire Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin on Tuesday, Nov. 12, to discuss the possibility of merging the two fire departments. Prior to the meeting, Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs made it clear the commissioners were there to listen. He said they need to know what services the city wants them to provide and what mechanism they plan to use to pay for the services. Once those questions are answered, their board can begin to discuss them.

When the meeting began, he turned it over to Mayor Dowling Watford because the city council requested the workshop. Mayor Watford asked each of the council members in turn if they had anything to say.

“ISO rating” is a term that has been tossed around often throughout the merger talk, and council member Monica Clark asked Chief Franklin to explain exactly what it means. Chief Franklin explained ISO is short for Insurance Service Office. That is an organization that comes in and looks at each department as a whole. They look at communications. They look at operations, which is the response, he said. They look at training and fire prevention, inspection and public education. Each of those has a formula within it, and based on how a department scores in those categories, they give the area a final score, and that is where your classification is. The county and the city are both ISO 3, he explained.

Councilman Bob Jarriel said his reason for requesting the workshop was strictly financial, and from all the figures he has seen, he believes they can cut the amount of money spent each year by going to the county. He said he plans to make a business decision that will represent the people of the city and stressed that no one is unhappy with the city fire department at all. “For a number of years we have drawn from our reserves. We need to balance our budget, and I think this is one of the issues we need to talk about,” he said. He would like the county to do the ambulance, the fire, the inspections — everything, including taking over the taxing of it. “Those are the kind of figures I would like to see so I can vote intelligently,” he said.

Councilwoman Clark expressed concern about the 12 people who work for the city fire department and said she hopes they can work together to secure their futures.

Mayor Watford asked whether commissioners would be willing to figure out what it would cost to provide the service to the city, and then they could decide if they wanted to contract it or do it as a fire tax. In his opinion, if they contract it, they might save some, depending how the figures come out, but he thought the goal was to cut the millage, and if they want to do that, they need to let the county do the fire tax, he said.

Commissioner Kelly Owens was concerned about whether the ISO would be affected and said that would need to be looked at. What effect would that have on businesses? Another issue is employees. The county is not obligated to take on all 12 employees, but if it did, the city and the people paying the fire assessment would need to understand the cost of taking them on would have to come from somewhere, and of course, the county would not be responsible for any of the city pensions. Then there is level of service. They would have to determine how many additional employees are needed to ensure everyone maintains the same or higher level of service, maybe three, maybe more, maybe none. They don’t know yet. These are all things they need to evaluate.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper wondered why the city did not train their firefighters as paramedics and buy an ambulance so they could stop paying an EMS assessment. If they did that, they could just pay the county on a case-by-case basis. If they need the county for a call, they could pay for that call, but if they don’t need them that month, they would not pay anything.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread wanted it made clear the board of county commissioners did not go after and does not covet the city fire department but said they are more than happy to meet and listen and try to help make things better. He asked if there were any consulting firms that might be able to do a study as an outside source and come back with a recommendation. He also wondered if this should be left up to the voters of Okeechobee the city and be put on the ballot.

Councilman Jarriel said the city did hire an outside consultant to do a study in 2017 and paid $40,000.

Councilman Bobby Keefe believes the county fire chief is smart and responsible enough to adjust county procedures to ensure a level of service that is appropriate countywide to include the municipal area. It is a small area, and he believes they will have no problem providing fire protection to the city, he said. “We would like to consolidate.” He said that was just his opinion, but he believes they need to unify and come right out and say it.

Several local pastors spoke during the public comment time and expressed concerns about churches and nonprofits being taxed. Pastor Mark McCarter of First Baptist Church said he knew Cornerstone Baptist Church closed its doors partly because they could not afford to pay their fire assessment.

Several city business owners were concerned about their taxes going up. They already pay city taxes. If this goes through, they will have to pay a fire assessment. Can they count on their millage rate to go down? They were also concerned that they would not have the services they are accustomed to now.

A letter was read into the record from the Economic Council of Okeechobee stating it fully supports the merger of city and county fire rescue services, and Hoot Whorley commented that the Economic Council has nothing against the city fire department at all.

County firefighter Dan Ciorrocco said he understood people were worried about loss of care if the departments merged or maybe some people felt they would get better care if the departments combined. He wanted to reassure everyone. “Without a doubt,” he said, “the 50 men and women who serve the community now are absolutely 100% able to do the job whether separate or together or upside down.” They will do their jobs and the community will not suffer, he said. “That’s why we are here. We don’t work at the fire department to be millionaires. We do it because we love this community, this county and this city.” His biggest concern is for the careers of the 12 people who work for the city.

The next workshop will be held on Nov. 26.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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