City talks fire merger… again

OKEECHOBEE — Once again, the possible merge of the city and county fire departments was the main topic of conversation at the Okeechobee City Council meeting held on Dec. 17. The council was informed that, according to state statute, they cannot allow the county to take over the fire department and assess taxes without a voter referendum, but if they decide to just contract the services of the county, they can do that without a vote. They were also given a list of four questions the county would like answered before they spend any more staff time on this.
• Will this be a contract or an assessment?
• Will they use city facilities for parking and equipment?
• What will the city do with their equipment — give to county or sell?
• What is the timeline?

Councilwoman Monica Clark said she still wants an outside consultant to come in and help them make an informed decision, but Mayor Dowling Watford said he saw no point in that because it does not matter what an outside consultant says. The county will offer what they want to offer. They have no reason to listen to an outside consultant. “I don’t think we have any leverage to negotiate,” he said.

Although Mayor Watford said he is completely against the idea of a contract, the rest of the council said they were willing to consider it. The council agreed they are willing to consider allowing the county to use their facilities for storage, but they would prefer the county move it to their own facility. The decision of whether to give or sell equipment was not resolved. Everyone agreed the equipment had already been paid for by the city residents, and they do not believe those tax payers should have to pay again, but the county residents have not paid, and some of the council members feel they should not get the equipment for free.

All council members except Mayor Dowling agreed that October 2020 would be when they would like to see the merge take place, although Councilwoman Clark said she would really prefer they do it slowly over a period of several years. Mayor Watford said October would not give the city fire fighters enough time to get through paramedic training which they would need in order to be considered for employment with the county, but he would be OK with having a contract in place by October.

At the last meeting, the possibility that the city charter might require the city to offer fire services was mentioned, but it was determined this is not the case.

Former Councilman Noel Chandler brought up the fact that when city employees go to school, they have to work for the city for two years or pay the money back. He wanted to know what would happen if all the fire fighters were sent to paramedic school and then were fired before they completed their two years,” will they have to pay back the money it cost to go to school?”

In other business, the council voted to hire the Nason, Yeager, Harris and Fumero law firm as the replacement for city attorney John Cook. The firm is located in Palm Beach Gardens and will be paid $9,400 per month for contracted legal work for the city, but this cost may change after the first 60 days, after they determine how many hours are actually needed. Special council legal services that are outside the scope of services described in the contract will be billed at a rate of $275 per hour for attorney fees and $80 per hour of certified paralegal time. No local firms applied for the position.

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