County to send draft agreement for fire protection services to city

OKEECHOBEE — At their April 30 meeting, Okeechobee County commissioners agreed to send the draft of the Interlocal Agreement for the Provision of Fire Services to the City of Okeechobee to the city council for its review.

The draft agreement covers three years and specifies a base payment of services for each of those three years, provides the time line for hiring personnel and provides for the lease of city vehicles and radio equipment. The draft agreement calls for payments to the county of $697,599.74 the first year; $708,039.73 the second year; and, $686,261.82 the third year. It also specifies other costs to the city.

“The word ‘draft’ is clearly stamped on every page of this. It doesn’t say, ‘this it — end of game.’ In a business contract you draft it up so you are sure you are protecting your interests. I think that is what we have accomplished,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens.

“Draft means: ‘This is what we’re offering, you tell us what you think about it’,” she continued. “None of us are saying this is set in stone, that’s why the word ‘draft’ is on it. This is a negotiation and we need to treat it as such.”

“My major concern is we have six employees who work for the city who are going to be without a job,” said Commissioner Byrant Culpepper. He said the city residents should have the ability to vote on whether they want to see their city fire service disappear. However, he added, although it is a tough decision, “I think it would be prudent to see this thing move forward.”

“My council has long supported a merger of this nature,” said Jennifer Tewsbury of the Okeechobee Economic Council. However, she added, “As it is presented now, we do not support it, based on fairness to the city taxpayers.”

She shared a letter from the council, which states: “While the Economic Council continues to support the merger of the city and county fire departments, the contract as initially proposed by the county cannot be supported by our organization. There is no end to the potential costs for city taxpayers to engage in this agreement as presented, defeating the purpose of seeking to operate public safety more efficiently and effectively with our limited taxpayer dollars.

“Included are proposed revisions to the initial contract as recommended by the Economic Council Board of Directors via unanimous vote at their regular meeting on April 29. Furthermore, the ECO recommends the contract cost to the city residents not exceed the amount which would be generated by the current county fire/rescue fee structure.

“The ECO thanks the Board of County Commissioners and county staff for the continued will to execute a mutually beneficial agreement that will ultimately serve our entire community better over the long term.

“Our council has long supported the city and county working together on this initiative to provide a more efficient public service for the people and businesses of this community.”

Commissioner David Hazellief suggested they send the draft agreement to the city and let them come back with their concerns. “It has to be fair to both sides,” said Mr. Hazellief. “It’s all about Okeechobee, it’s going to take some time to happen, and we’re all in this together.”

“The first time we had a meeting, I said this is not going to be us vs. them,” agreed Commissioner Brad Goodbread. He said the goal is to find a way to offer the same quality of service for less money by taking advantage of the economies of scale.

“I believe everybody wants to hire as many of the city firefighters as we can who want to work for us,” said Commissioner Hazellief. He said some city firefighters are currently training as paramedics. He suggested changing the start date on the contract so those firefighters would quality to apply for the jobs. Indian River State College has expedited the class. However, there is a question on when they can take the state tests because testing centers were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While only seven new jobs would be created in the Okeechobee County Fire/Rescue department, if there are other job openings they could apply for those, he said. Okeechobee residents already get first priority on new hires.

County Administrator Robbie Chartier said the city asked the county for a three-year projection. “Typically contracts have a termination date in them,” she added.

“If we were completely taking over, it would have gone on a referendum,” Mrs. Chartier continued. If the referendum passed, the county fire protection and EMS assessments would be reevaluated to cover the expenses of the merged department. “I don’t think the public knows what goes into all of the little expenses,” she said.

Commissioner Goodbread noted the contract calls for the county to lease the city’s equipment. “It seems like it’s giving them the option to start their own fire department again after three years if they don’t like it,” he said. “It seems like it has failure built into it.”

“I think the part of the leasing is the right thing to do,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “By leasing for even a dollar a year, it ensures should there be a mechanical failure it is the city’s responsibility.” It also leaves the city with the ability to come back and use that equipment if they decide to take fire services back.

“This is an offer,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “They can come back and make a counteroffer.”

“We are not taking over their fire department. We are merely offering a contract to provide the service. If it’s not working for the city, there needs to be a way for them to not move forward with the contract in a way that isn’t detrimental to them,” said Commissioner Owens. “They may have a completely different idea. We don’t know that until we send this over to them.”

Mrs. Chartier said the idea of leasing the equipment came from the city. She said other factors will affect costs of the contract, including new requirements set by the Florida Legislature.

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