Firefighter attempts to save city fire department

OKEECHOBEE — In what may be a last ditch effort, Okeechobee City firefighter Stevie Weeks has been attempting to rally support in an effort to save the Okeechobee City Fire Department.


For months now, the Okeechobee City Council has been considering ways to save money for the city. When the possibility of consolidating the departments was brought up in a council meeting last July, Councilman Bob Jarriel said, “Seventy-five percent of our ad valorem taxes go to the fire department,” He explained that he thought the fire department did a wonderful job, but the majority of cities in Florida do not have both city and county fire departments, and the city’s millage rate is much higher than the norm.


In a council meeting in February, Councilwoman Monica Clark spoke on the subject of city finances and the possible dissolution of the fire department, She said the reason she believed they began the discussion about consolidation/contracts/etc. was because the city is spending more than it brings in each year, and it can’t bring in enough taxes to cover the budget.
“We’re going into our savings account, as I explain it to some people. When you have $10,000 in your savings account, and you are pulling out $1,200 a year to make ends meet at your household, how much longer are you going to have that budget?” she asked. “How much longer will you have savings? We are trying to be fiscally responsible for the taxpayers of the city because we cannot collect enough taxes to cover the difference, so we are trying to make responsible decisions.”


Although the discussion on the merge/consolidation/dissolution has been going on for nearly a year, no decisions have been made yet. Earlier this year, the city asked the county for a contract so they could compare that with a proposal made by Fire Capt. Lalo Rodriguez. Capt. Rodriguez outlined his plan at a council meeting in January. He explained his plan to pay for his own budget so that the council could lower their millage rate. First, he said, they would collect an EMS tax from city residents. The county already collects these assessments. The city would just begin collecting them instead. This would amount to approximately $344,000, he said. Second would be transportation costs. Based on both county experience and average medical call volume of 1,200 calls per year at $400 per call, it would come to about $480,000. Finally, they would do a fire assessment. Based on the county’s current rate of $108 per residence, this would add another $460,000. This brings the total funding of the budget to $1,284,000. That would leave the city to fund only $76,000 of the fire department’s services, he explained, which would allow them to lower the millage rate. This also does not account for the possibility of grant funding, which he is confident they will be able to obtain.


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.


Fire fighter Stevie Weeks, along with friends, family and community members, has spent many hours on the street corners of the main intersection in town, holding signs in support of the city fire department. In addition, a petition has been started online.


The petition reads, “It has been brought to the public’s attention recently, without any consideration of the public, that The Okeechobee City Fire Department is to be shut down. The board of county commissioners and the city council board are using words like, merger and consolidation. This is clearly not the intentions of this action. The city council and the board of county commissioners had no intentions in notifying the public of this action until the closure was completed and there wasn’t a way to then change it after the public disagreed. Both the board of county commissioners and the city council plan to approve a contract that will leave 13 people unemployed, the city council will then pay Okeechobee County Fire Rescue to cover the city limits, they will allow OCFR to use their fire trucks and equipment to do so and pay for all of the maintenance and repairs on said equipment, OCFR will hire six new people at their department because they will be even more short handed, but NONE of the city employees will be given preference for jobs. The OCFD already assists OCFR an average of twice a week because they are unable to answer all of the calls. The city council claims it has to do with budget, when the OCFD hasn’t went over budget in 5 years. The OCFD captain presented an alternative plan to not only keep the department open but to also add an ALS medical unit to the department and begin handling the medical calls within city limits also. Only offering even better service for the residents and businesses within the city limits. They have shut him down in the board meetings. Referred to it as ‘kicking a can.’ Residents, tax payers, have addressed the boards in meetings only to be shut down as well. Does the city council as well as board of county commissioners think so little of the residents of Okeechobee? Does your opinions not matter? It is your tax dollars that are paying to employ the firefighters and you do own all of the trucks and equipment. Why do you not get a say so? Why couldn’t this be on ballot to vote instead of under a rug for them to solely decide? Do not let the very people that work for you and represent you speak for you in this matter.
If you would like to see your Okeechobee City Fire Department stay open to serve the public, as well as possibly add a medical ALS unit in the future to better serve you, sign this petition with all intentions of being heard.”


Although the petition claims the city council and county commissioners had no intention of notifying the public, the topic has been covered extensively in the newspaper, and some of the commissioners have made comments in support of the city fire department.


In a discussion between the city council and the county commissioners in November of 2019, 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 also wondered if this should be left up to the voters of Okeechobee the city and be put on the ballot.


In a county commissioner’s meeting early in May, Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said, ““My major concern is we have six employees who work for the city who are going to be without a job.” In addition, he said the city residents should have the ability to vote on whether they want to see their city fire service disappear.

During the May 14 county commission meeting, Robbie Chartier, county administrator, shared a chart about the county’s fire assessment rates. The county commission has not proposed this option, but during the discussion about the fire departments, someone had asked how much would be collected if the city switched to a fire assessment with the same rates used by the county. If the city property owners were charged the current fire assessment rates that county residents pay, it would total $717,403.50 (at a 96% collection rate, $688,707.36.) This includes the varying fire assessments charged on houses, mobile homes, commercial properties, offices/medical, warehouses, hotels/motels, mini-warehouses, office trailers, churches, vacant land and RV Parks.


Mr. Weeks said he would appreciate it if everyone would attend the council meeting Tuesday night, May 19 at 6 p.m. This will be a virtual meeting and can be accessed by joining the Zoom meeting @ https://zoom.us/j/2459713294
The meeting ID is245 971 3294.
“It takes more than posting on Facebook to make yourself heard. You have to come to the meeting and let the council know what you think,” he said.

He wants to be sure everyone understands that none of the city firefighters are guaranteed a job with the county. All of them will lose their jobs. They can then apply for a job with the county, but there is no guarantee they will be hired. The contract, as it stands now, makes it clear no preference will be given to city firefighters. He also said the numbers quoted in the draft of the contract from the county do not reflect maintenance costs which the city would have to pay. In addition, they do not take into account that when firefighter contracts are negotiated, if they get raises, the city will have to pay the increase for six firefighters. “The numbers quoted in the contract draft are nowhere near what the city will end up paying,” he said. “Services will be cut in half, and households will save pennies.”

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