Should fire departments merge?

OKEECHOBEE — Consolidation of fire departments was a topic of conversation at the Okeechobee City Council meeting on Oct. 15, and the end result of the discussion was that they want to have a workshop with the county officials.

City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca came prepared with some options that had come from several meetings he had with County Administrator Robbie Chartier, Councilman Bob Jarriel and Okeechobee County Fire Chief Ralph Franklin. Chief Franklin and Administrator Chartier were in attendance at the council meeting in case there were any questions they could answer for the council.

Councilman Bobby Keefe said he distinctly remembered Councilman Bob Jarriel asking for a workshop between all council members and the county commissioners, and staff was tasked with gathering pre-workshop data and information. He said he understood budget workshops had delayed all that, but he believes putting a workshop on the calendar should be the next step.

Councilwoman Monica Clark said she feels as though this is a major decision for both the city and county. She said in balancing the budget, they realize they had to take money out of reserves, and she hates to see them continue to operate in that manner. But, she said, she would not be in favor of doing anything where they did not protect the employees of the city fire department. She said she did not feel she has enough information at this point to make a decision that would affect the lives of 12 people, and she wants to represent them fairly as well as the taxpayers. “I’m here to represent the people of this community and the taxpayers and how we spend their money.”

Councilman Jarriel said: “I think we are ready for a workshop. We have drug it out long enough.” He said they can’t continue to discuss it without having a workshop to get the actual facts to make an intelligent decision. He said the issue for him has always been financial. “We are talking about the taxpayers’ money here, and when I ran for office, I said, ‘please let me represent you.’ And, that is what I am going to do. I’m going to represent the citizens of Okeechobee. I’m going to try to do the best job I can do.”

Councilman Wes Abney agreed, “We have to look out for the city employees as well as the taxpayers.” He believes a workshop is the best way to bring everyone together to sit down and discuss it. He did say he appreciated the time it took for the staff to put the information together but believes it needs more discussion.

Mayor Dowling Watford asked what they thought would be accomplished with a workshop that wasn’t already accomplished by the meetings the administrators held. He said to him the biggest question would be the pensions of the employees. He believes they already have the information they need but said, “Obviously, we are going to have a workshop because there are four of you who want one.” He stressed to them, though, that he wanted to go into the workshop with specific questions. He said he gave Mr. Montes de Oca a long list of questions before the meetings he had with the county and said that was what they were all supposed to have done. If they wanted him to find out things, they were supposed to give him a list. When they have the workshop, he would like them to go in prepared and not just go in and talk. “What exactly do we want to know from them?” he asked.

Councilman Jarriel wants to sit down with all the council members and all the commissioners and discuss actual figures. “I want to hear it from the commissioners that ‘yes we can do this’ or ‘no we can’t do this,’ and then I can make an intelligent decision on how I want to vote,” he said.

Administrator Montes de Oca wanted to know what the topic of discussion would be so he could let the county know. Will it be contracting, or consolidation or an independent fire district or all of them? He also asked if there was any specific data they wanted from Administrator Chartier.

Councilman Jarriel asked Ms. Chartier if she had the information and, if not, how long it would take her to get information on what the assessments would be. Did she have any idea if they would be up or down or how it would affect the city residents? She said they did not have an easy way to come up with those figures. They would have to come up with a method to include the city properties into their assessment rolls and create a module, so currently, they do not have the ability to give him an answer.

Former councilman Gary Ritter said he is and probably will always be against consolidation. Nothing against the city or the county folks, he said, but he believes the entire situation is too complex and there are too many variables to do this right now. “On my mind, just listening to this discussion, I don’t think there is the expertise in this community right now that can pull all that information together into a concise report that will allow us to make good, sound decisions. In my mind, unless you are ready to hire a consultant that does this kind of study that can look at all these scenarios that have been laid out, then maybe have a workshop within the parameters of that study. Otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to be able to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”

Firefighter Josh Sanders said he as a city resident is concerned he may end up losing his fire department and then end up paying more taxes if they consolidate.

Former county commissioner Frank Irby, a city resident, said he understands this is a difficult decision, but it is not unusual to have to make difficult decisions in business. He said the fire department makes up 22% of the city’s expenses on their budget. If they were to remove it and transfer that service to something else, county or some other contractor, he suggests they could reduce the budget not by $1.3 million, which it now costs them, but by $1 million. They could reduce their ad valorem taxes to 4.5 mills from 7.168 (which means,, $7.168 in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation, after exemptions) if they did that, and he said they would have to be committed to doing it. The current county fire assessment fee for a building the size of Glades Gas is about $1,100. For the city, as high as the costs are, it would be $3,300. “That’s how far this is out of whack when you look at cost,” he said.

“Strictly cost, just look at the cost. Ignore everything else, because it is the taxpayers who are paying that cost. If we want to have money to do things like repair our streets and other things we ought to be doing, this is one way you can do it. It absolutely makes business sense to do it.” He said if they would look at the fire study done in 2017, they would see the typical call volume in the city was 651 calls per year for everything including EMS. If you take those 651 calls and divide $1.3 million dollar, it costs $2,000 per call. “I would suggest to you that is not the best way to spend taxpayers’ money,” he said.

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