Is an interlocal fire agreement between City of Okeechobee and Okeechobee County legal?

OKEECHOBEE — The possibility of having the city provide its own EMS service was on the agenda at the city council meeting Tuesday night, July 7. City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca went over the details saying he and Finance Director India Riedel had gone over the figures so many times they practically had them memorized. In the end, he explained, if the city were to provide EMS services, city residents would no longer pay an EMS assessment to the county, and if they went this route then revenue from transports is “basically paying for the fire department and EMS, and its future rate would equal about what the citizen is paying currently with millage and assessment. Every dollar recouped, revenue wise, during transport would be savings to the city.”

Councilman Bob Jarriel said he did not understand why they were even discussing this when they did not have the figures from the county.
Council member Monica Clark said she specifically asked to have the discussion on the agenda. She explained that every time they have a meeting, the fire department asks if they have looked at the numbers they provided, and she wanted to see the numbers again, and know what the possibilities are.

Mayor Dowling Watford encouraged the council members to schedule meetings with the administrator so they could discuss the subject with him and ask questions to help them better understand it.

The Economic Council of Okeechobee continues to support the idea of an interlocal agreement between the city and county for fire protection services in the city. A letter from the economic council was read during the meeting expressing this support. The letter voiced opposition to the proposed implementation of EMS services by the city.

Mayor Watford went over each point of the agreement the task force worked out during their meetings last month, and the council decided whether they wanted to abide with these decisions or send them back to the table to negotiate some more. Some of the items discussed were pensions of the employees and use of the city fire station building.

At the very end of the meeting, the city attorney John Fumero brought up one last item. Mayor Watford said he thought the discussion originated with the county attorney during the task force meeting. Mr. Fumero said the discussion was in reference to what needs to happen once all the details of the deal between the city and county are ironed out. How do they transfer the fire service to the county? There are constitutional and statutory issues, he said. “The bottom line is we both believe that there is some discretion in terms of either effectuating the transfer of fire services through a referendum, in this case a dual referendum or effectuated through an interlocal agreement.” He said he knows of about half a dozen instances where fire services were transferred to a county via an inter-governmental agreement, “but if you were to ask me to take a bullet-proof belt and suspenders approach, again, this is strictly from a legal stand point, not from public perception or political standpoint, strictly legal, belt and suspenders approach, it would be a dual referendum.” He went on to tell the council that if they directed him to do this through another means, he thought it could be done.

Mayor Watford said it’s almost like the constitution says one thing and the state statute says another. He went on to say when they had the task force meeting, the county attorney brought it up, and mentioned it as a possible risk they were taking. “Zero risk is referendum,” said Mr. Fumero. “From a legal standpoint.”

“If you were to do it by the interlocal, if nobody challenges it, there’s no problem. The problem is if someone were to challenge that, then you would have a court case to go through,” said Mayor Watford.
The mayor added the county attorney said he felt confident he would prevail in defending an interlocal agreement in court, but it would entail a court proceeding.

“The question the city and county needs to answer is: Do we want to do it the interlocal, or do we want to propose a dual referendum?” He said he was told they had until sometime in August to put it on the November ballot. This would be a binding referendum, not a straw poll. Despite the mayor’s and the attorney’s words, the other council members expressed no interest in pursuing a referendum.

The county meets Thursday, July 9 at 9 a.m.

In other business:
• Anyone who is interested in volunteering to man the COVID-19 call center at the health department Monday through Friday from 8-5 should call to let them know, because if they do not get volunteers, they will dismantle their call line after this week, said Tiffany Collins, Okeechobee County Heath Department Supervisor. She also mentioned a new trend among young people. Much like hurricane parties, they are holding COVID quarantine parties. “We just want to make sure everyone is not engaging in that kind of activity. That’s not smart,” she said. “Apparently they are inviting who they know to be positive to a party with the intention of making themselves exposed to COVID.”

If your business or agency would like to distribute free masks to the public, please call Tod Hardacre 863-462-5805. Okeechobee is now the sixth highest in the state of Florida for pediatric cases of COVID-19, she said.

• Marvin Roberts was presented a longevity award for 20 years of service to the city in the Public Works department.

Pictured with Marvin Roberts are public works director David Allen (left) and Mayor Dowling Watford (right)

• An ordinance was adopted allowing package sales of alcoholic beverages on Sunday.

• Okeechobee Main Street will install two signs in park #5 illustrating the cattle drive sculpture project which is coming in the future.

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