Fire captain proposes plan to save city fire department

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Josh Sanders is one of the firefighters waiting to learn whether he will keep his job with the city.

OKEECHOBEE — A plan was proposed at the Okeechobee City Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 21, to save the city fire department.

Capt. Lalo Rodriguez, a city fire department employee, introduced his plan as an alternative to what the council has been discussing, which they have been calling a merger of the city and county fire departments. He said he understood the city wants to lower the millage rate and he believes with this plan they can accomplish that without dissolving the fire department. He used a slide show to illustrate his idea.

He explained the city fire department staff consists of one chief, one administrative secretary and 11 firefighters, with combined service experience of 147 years. Seven of those 13 employees have worked for the city of Okeechobee for 10 years or more.

He said at the last meeting of the Okeechobee county commissioners, their estimate to contract to handle city’s fire services came in at $697,000, but he added, there were still some numbers they needed to get clear with the administrators. The county’s option to take over fire protection within the city limits would add six medics and a fire engine to the county department, he said.

Future costs unpredictable
Capt. Rodriguez gave the council two examples of other entities that went into contracts with the county and ended up with much higher rates in a few years. He said when the city contracted with the county for animal control services, animal control had an increase of 119.71% in 11 years. “This is what could happen with the contract for fire services,” he said. He also spoke to Bob Jones, who is the former EMS director and present administrator in Glades County and asked him for information on the rates they have been paying to cover Buckhead Ridge. He reportedly said when he first signed a contract with Okeechobee County in 2017, it was $90,000. Now, it is almost $130,000. That is a 33% increase, said Capt. Rodriguez. Now, Glades County is building their own fire service and manning their own station, putting a team together.

Mr. Jones suggested once the city gets all their personnel through paramedic training, they get their engine ALS certified and sticker it. Mr. Jones is willing to help them get started so they can do their own transports in the city, said Capt. Rodriguez. He has done grants to get funding for his department and is willing to help the city fire department by writing the grants for them. He is also willing to loan them two med units and Lifepaks to get them started. Once they receive their own equipment, they could give Mr. Jones back his equipment.

With the help of Mr. Jones, Capt. Rodriguez came up with what they believe is an accurate estimate of a budget of $1,360,000 if they were to begin operating as an ALS certified department and do their own transports.

Next, Capt. Rodriguez outlined 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.

“We are here as a fire department to protect our citizens, their property and them. I feel if we are not here, the city citizens are going to be the ones who suffer.”

Mayor Dowling Watford thanked him for the presentation and suggested the council take some time to think about what he suggested before making any decisions.

Councilman Wes Abney said it was a lot of information. “I want to do the math and check it all myself,” he said. “I appreciate you looking and coming up with this optional idea.”

Councilman Bobby Keefe said, “There’s a lot of information, numbers, dollar amounts, that we’ve been going through for the past few months regarding this. Now, you throw even more at us. Great presentation. Thank you for all the information. In our discussion I shared with you, numbers and data are presented to reflect what you want your recipient to see, and I don’t know what I don’t know. Discussing these numbers here with you might be legitimate and look current, but maybe they are missing some things. I just don’t know.”

Mayor refuses motion
Immediately after Capt. Rodriguez sat down, Councilman Keefe said he spoke with Chief Ralph Franklin from the county fire department earlier and he alluded to still waiting for an official request for a contract or merger or whatever. Mayor Watford said he thought they had already made it clear. Councilman Keefe said, “In the essence of being clear and concise. I would like to make motion that we…” Here he was interrupted by the mayor who said a motion was not in order because there was no item on the agenda to discuss that. Councilman Keefe said because they were still discussing the fire department contract option, he felt it was on the agenda already.

“I would like to make a motion that we contract with the county for fire services in the city so that we can begin actual negotiations instead of just fact-finding,” said Councilman Keefe. Councilman Jarriel immediately seconded the motion, but Mayor Watford shouted, “NO, we’re not … the chair’s not accepting that motion!”

He went on to suggest to Councilman Keefe that he put it on the agenda for the next meeting. “A motion is not in order at this time,” he said.
Attorney agrees with mayor

“A motion is never out of order,” said Councilman Bob Jarriel. After a heated back and forth, the matter was turned over to the city attorney, John Fumero, who said, “If there is a vote to direct the city administrator to do additional fact finding and bring issues and information to you, I don’t see there being an issue. If the nature is to make substantive decisions, then I would respectfully suggest we place an item for the next meeting agenda.” After Mr. Fumero’s advice, there was more discussion by some of the council members. Councilman Jarriel said he was tired of kicking this can down the road. “We are asking to vote to instruct our administrator to bring back a contract. We are not trying to vote on the contract.”

Mayor Watford again asked Councilman Keefe to wait and put his request on the agenda during the council comment portion of the meeting. “I’m not here to make enemies,” said Councilman Keefe. “I thought we were still under new business, section six, letter E — Discuss City Fire Department contract option — Fire Captain.” They once again decided to ask the opinion of the attorney, who said he saw nothing wrong with them requesting fact finding, but he felt they should not request a contract without putting it on the agenda.

Councilman Keefe replied, “Agreed, Mr. Attorney, would you then give me the exact wording of that agenda item? Would it not be ‘Discuss City Fire Department contract option?’ What would the appropriate wording be for a future meeting?” Mr. Fumero attempted to explain there was more than one contract option, and the one discussed at the meeting was the one on the agenda.

City Fire Chief Herb Smith asked if they planned to give Capt. Rodriguez’s proposal any consideration at all, because it appeared to him that they planned to go ahead with their plans with the county and they were not showing much interest in his presentation at all, with the exception of Councilwoman Monica Clark. He was told no decisions had been made, and they just wanted to look at a contract and make an informed decision.

Fire chief urges council to consider all alternatives
“I appreciate that,” Chief Smith said. “But, at this point, I just don’t want it rushed. This is very important, so please make sure you have all your facts. If you have no intention, I’m kind of confused. Monica is the only one who has really said — well, Wes kind of alluded to it as well — about the other alternatives. But you two: Are you not even going to consider other alternatives?”

Councilman Jarriel assured him they had not made a decision yet and were waiting for the facts. “Hopefully Marcos (Montes De Oca) and Robbie (Chartier) come back with a contract next week. That would be great. We don’t have to vote for it. Everybody’s just getting too upset over it. Let’s discuss it,” he said.

During the council comments portion of the meeting, Councilwoman Clark asked Administrator Montes De Oca to verify all the information in the presentation given by Capt. Rodriguez and have it ready within 30 days. Councilman Abney said he would like that information as well.

Councilman Keefe requested they put making a contract with the county on the agenda for the next meeting.

Councilman Jarriel said, “I’m disgusted we keep kicking this can down the road. How long are we going to keep putting this off? We came here trying to do something for the city, and this is disgusting. I’m getting fed up with it. If they can put a contract together we can agree on, we’ll sign it. If we don’t want it, we’ll vote it down. I’m totally against this garbage. I’m getting tired of reading it in the paper and hearing it on the radio.”

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