City and county closer to fire services agreement

OKEECHOBEE — The COVID-19 pandemic could delay plans for the county to take over fire protection services inside the Okeechobee city limits.

At the July 9 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Fire/Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin said six of the city firefighters are in paramedic school. He said they could not be added to Okeechobee County Fire/Rescue until they pass the paramedic exam. Currently, they expect the exam to be given in May 2021.

He said there will also be additional costs to the county while the new paramedics are completing the required three-month period during which they cannot work independently as paramedics.

County Administrator Robbie Chartier said for the first year, the city has agreed to pay the equivalent of what the county fire assessment would bring in, were it charged in the city limits, based on the current rates charged in the county per residence, per RV space and per square foot of business structure. The assessment rate would generate about $725,000, she said.

The county had already planned to have a new rate study done. “The city has asked to be part of the fire assessment rate study and has agreed to pay for their part of that study,” she explained. They originally planned to start that study this year. That study has been pushed to the first of next year due to COVID-19.

Under the fire services agreement, the county would add six new paramedic positions and one fire inspector. These positions would be paid from the funding provided by the city.

The administrator said because the city would be funding the inspector, the inspection fees would go to the city.

“They could use the inspection fees to offset the costs,” Chartier explained.

She said the city has asked for a five-year agreement and a guarantee for response times. The city will also pay for their employees to attend paramedic school.

In addition, at the start, the county would take all of the city fire service employees who wish to transfer. If there are more than six paramedics and one inspector, the city would pay the additional salaries. As the department was right-sized through attrition, the cost to the city would go down.

County commissioners agreed they do not want to reopen negotiations with the union.

“If county does not open the union contract, these people would come over and they would be treated like a new employee from the county’s standpoint,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.

Chartier said allowing city employees to maintain their current seniority and rank could create a problem because county lieutenants are experienced paramedics while the city lieutenants are not paramedics.

“COVID has messed up the whole routine,” explained Fire/Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin. “The people who started paramedic school the first of the year are probably not going to be finished until the first quarter of 2021. When they come on board with us, it will be a minimum of at least three months before they can function as a paramedic.”

Fire/rescue orientation is a minimum of three months. The probationary period is one year, commented Burroughs.

“For us to provide the service while they’re going through their initial training, we’re going to have costs associated with that.

“In order to come over with us, they are going to have to have passed their state test,” said the chief.

County Attorney Wade Vose said once the city employees move over to the county, the city will stop providing fire protection service. He said the county will be responsible for fire protection services while the former city employees complete their required three-month orientation as paramedics.

“It will cost the county overtime while they are training,” said Commissioner David Hazellief.

“I don’t think the number of people is an issue,” he said. “The city is talking about offering some of them an exit package. Not all of them want to come over.”

Okeechobee City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca said the city has agreed that if more than seven city employees want to move to the county staff, the city will pay for the additional costs until attrition provides positions for the extra city employees.

“Anyone above and beyond the number for Okeechobee County, the general consensus was that we will pay for the paramedic training and the city will pay their salaries until the county positions are opened through attrition,” he explained.

“With the concept of losing the extra people through attrition, we can find a place for them, third person on an engine, etc., but it doesn’t dilute the need for them to be paramedics,” said Franklin. “If it is a paramedic that leaves, and it’s a firefighter/EMT who would be absorbed through attrition, that move could not be made.”

Commissioner Kelly Owens said the county needs to know how many city employees want to be hired by the county and how many are paramedics or in paramedic school.

“Since we don’t know who is coming and what their level is, don’t know what our exposure will be,” agreed Burroughs.

The city also wants to know how long the county wants to use space in the city’s building.

“We will put an additional engine at station 1,” explained the chief. “The length of time we will be using city bays depends on when we can build more bays on station one.

“Some of our reserve units have to be plugged in continuously and not just pulled into a garage and parked,” he explained.

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