Outside consultant may be next step in fire merge

OKEECHOBEE — For several months now, the possibility of merging the city fire department with the county has been one of the main topics of conversation at both city council and county commission meetings, and the city council meeting on Dec. 3 was no exception. Councilman Bob Jarriel expressed disappointment with the progress of the back and forth, and said the whole issue was to save the city money, and all he really wanted was to know how much the county would charge to take over the fire department. He laughed and said he was not suggesting they actually do it, but if they did away with the fire department, the county would have no choice but to take it over.

Mayor Dowling Watford said he understood but explained the county could not give an amount until they had answers to certain questions. Will they need to buy a new engine or will the city give them one? Would the city sell it to them or give it to them? If the city plans to sell it to them, how much would they charge them? One of the biggest questions, he said, would be whether the city wants to do this on a contract basis or would the city turn it completely over to the county and the county would then levy their own fire taxes. He said his concern with a contract is like anything you do a contract with, the first year might be real good, but the second or third or fifth might not.

“We have no control over that,” he said. “We’ve lost all control then over what equipment they are going to buy or what the salaries are going to be. I see no advantage, from the city’s standpoint to a contract. In my mind, I think we would do as you say, OK county this is your service to provide. Levy the fire tax just like you do in the county areas, and we’re out of it.” Even then, he said, they would still need to know if the city planned to give them the equipment they owned or sell it to them. “If I were sitting in their position, that would be the big question I would want to know,” he said, “is it going to be a contract or is it going to be a fire tax?”

Councilman Jarriel said he would have a hard time voting to sell them a fire engine if they took over the service, because the taxpayers already paid for the fire engine. “I don’t think the taxpayers should have to pay for it a second time,” he said.

Councilman Bobby Keefe asked Fire Chief Herb Smith if he had anything he wanted to add to the discussion, and he said, he did not think the city could just walk away from fire protection. He was pretty sure they had a legal obligation to have fire protection for their citizens. “You can’t just lock the doors and hope the county takes over,” he said. “You might want to check at the state level and your ordinances.”

Councilman Keefe said he agreed about the equipment. It was purchased by taxpayer dollars, who would then be protected by the county. He also said fire services had to be paid for somehow. “They need to be supplemented by something other than ad valorem. What citizens don’t understand is, we need to pay for it in another way. I think if we are to keep fire services here in the city, then we would have to implement a fire assessment. So, whether the city does a fire assessment or the county implements their fire assessment within the incorporated municipal boundaries, the city residents and businesses will be paying a fire assessment. We’ve got to pay for it other than ad valorem,” he said. In addition, he said he was agreeable to paying for any of the firefighters who wanted to go to school for paramedic training so they would have a better chance of finding employment elsewhere. All the council members agreed that this would be a good idea.

Council woman Monica Clark said after listening to everything that was said at the workshop and at the county commission meeting, she absolutely did not feel prepared to make a decision without having an independent consultant come in to advise them. “I’m not ready to make a fast decision,” she said. “I’ve been involved in two business mergers, and both of them took almost two years. With that, you make sure employees are taken care of. You make sure it’s fair. Make decisions on equipment, buy out pensions, offer sell-out packages, decide what you’re going to do with buildings, and make sure it is fair to all parties, and I don’t feel that any of us have the information or the expertise to make this decision right now, and I think it is something that is really important. I personally do not want to make a decision on the 17th. My opinion would be to have a transition over a period of two to three years. I’m not ready to make a decision. There are too many variables involved in it.”

Councilman Wes Abney agreed with Council woman Clark and said he had always been for an independent consultant. He wanted to know if they had a list of questions from the county, but was told there was no list.

Mayor Watford, Councilman Keefe and Councilman Jarriel all said they believe the best plan is to just have the county take over the entire fire department including taxation, but Councilman Abney and Council woman Clark were not willing to express an opinion on that yet. They want to wait until they hear from an outside consultant.

Mayor Watford said they also need to find out really quick what their obligation is to the city concerning fire protection. “If I remember correctly, the fire department is in our charter,” he said.

The meeting ended with a plan to put the fire merger on a future agenda, to have each council member get a list of questions together and give it to the administrator, and to have the administrator look for an outside consultant who can help them through a merger.

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

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