Okeechobee City council moves forward with contract for county to provide fire service in the city

OKEECHOBEE — Despite assurances to the contrary, it appears the Okeechobee City Council has made a decision regarding the fate of the city fire department. Back in February, the council assured the city fire department that their intention in asking the county for a contract did not mean they had made a decision. At the time they said they would look at Capt. Lalo Rodriguez’ proposal and the contract side by side and compare the two. At that earlier meeting, Councilman Bobby Keefe said he thought having the two options side by side was the only logical way to assess their options, but at the meeting on May 19, there was no comparison of the two options at all. The only mention of Captain Rodriguez’ proposal was when he brought it up himself during public comments and was told by Councilman Keefe that there were more costs involved than his proposal had covered. Capt. Rodriguez was told they would not be considering his proposal and would instead be “merging” with the county.

Mayor Dowling Watford said he did not agree with the council’s decision, but he is only one man. If it were up to him, he would give Capt. Rodriguez’ proposal a chance, but it is not up to him. He believes most city residents enjoy the services provided by the fire department and will miss them when they are gone. He said he hopes the police department will not suffer the same fate one day.

The only questions seem to lie within the contract itself. The county sent over a draft of a contract, and the council discussed the details during the meeting. Some of the points discussed were the amount of time it takes to approve permits, preference in hiring city fire fighters, the length of the contract and what to do with the city fire equipment.

Changes were made to the draft, and it will be sent back to the county. If they agree to the changes, the deal will be made.

Another interesting discussion came up when Councilwoman Monica Clark said the city council wanted to let the citizens vote on the fire issue, but the county refused. City Attorney John Fumero asked if anyone had ever formally asked to put a referendum on the ballot, and Councilman Bob Jarriel said it was brought up at the joint workshop they held to discuss the fire departments. Interestingly, the only mention of voting at that meeting came from County Commissioner Brad Goodbread, and he said he thought it should be left up to the Okeechobee voters and should be put on the ballot.

When it came time for public comments, a petition with almost 500 signatures in support of the city fire department was read into the record, but that seemed to have no effect on the council.

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