OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County and city officials will meet Thursday, June 25, at 6 p.m. to talk about the proposal for Okeechobee County to provide fire protection services within the city limits.
At the June 11 Okeechobee County Commission meeting, Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the task force of city and county officials met earlier this week and made a list of time lines and action items to discuss. He said he and Mayor Dowling Watford Jr. agreed it would not be fair to the Okeechobee City Council members if they discuss those items at the county meeting.
“We agreed to have a joint workshop on June 25 to come back with action items and the time lines,” he said. “We agreed we would not talk about anything until that meeting.”
Commissioner Kelly Owens said she liked the idea of a joint workshop. She said all of the city council and county commission members should be in the room together, adding that this should help prevent misunderstandings.
Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said many people do not understand the county already responds to all medical calls.
Commissioner Brad Goodbread said it is important that “nobody gets hurt” because of this. He said he understands a couple of the city employees are close to retirement and the city could make them some kind of offer.
The commissioners agreed the workshop should allow public comment at the end of the meeting.
During the commission’s public comment period, Lawrence Fipps addressed the board. “In the last week I have been going door to door,” he said. “I knocked on 73 doors, and out of 73 residents, none of them want this.” He said 35 of the 73 city residents he spoke to did not even know about the proposal for the county to take over fire protection services in the city limits.
“I don’t believe the city council is going about it the right way,” said Mr. Fipps. “I know this is not your fault. This is not your idea. This is not your plan.
“I’m pleading with you guys to give some push back on this,” said Mr. Fipps.
Jennifer Tewksbury of the Okeechobee Economic Council agreed the public is not aware of the facts in regard to the fire departments. She said the Economic Council has researched and prepared a fact sheet that was verified as correct by both the city and county administrative offices. She provided copies of this fact sheet to the commissioners. This fact sheet has been printed out for distribution and was also published in the June 10 edition of the Lake Okeechobee News.
The Contract for Fire Services in Okeechobee Fact Sheet, provided by the Economic Council of Okeechobee, states:
“The City Council and Board of County Commissioners have discussed a contract for the county to provide fire rescue services for the City of Okeechobee. While considering the pros and cons of this action objectively, the public should be informed of the following:
“The county fire department has responded to:
“1,290 of the city’s total 1,691 emergency calls in 2017;
“1,220 of the city’s total 1,518 emergency calls in 2018;
“1,228 of the city’s total 1,495 emergency calls in 2019.
“This means both the city and the county fire departments are responding to the nearly 80% of all emergency calls in the city limits. This is a duplication of services, and a streamlined department will increase efficiency.
“The City of Okeechobee taxed property owners to generate $1.37 million for the City Fire Department in 2019. If Okeechobee County Fire Rescue provides the same service for less than $725,000 each year, a contract for services will provide the elimination of $6.45 million in redundant local spending within 10 years.
“Members of both City Council and BOCC have expressed in duly advertised public meetings intent to protect local firefighters from being displaced to the extent possible.
“The City Council unanimously voted to pay for educational expenses for each city firefighter to obtain paramedic certification so that they may be eligible for employment with Okeechobee County Fire Rescue. Of the 10 eligible city firefighters, six are currently enrolled.
“The initial proposed contract with Okeechobee County provides for six new paramedic positions and one inspector. Okeechobee County Fire Rescue gives a local preference in hiring staff and currently has vacancies which need to be filled.
“PRUDENT LONG-TERM THINKING
“The streamlining of public safety departments and/or services has been considered in the majority of all 67 Florida counties. Seeking to find the most efficient and effective way to keep the public safe with limited taxpayer dollars is a responsibility of local elected leaders.
“City taxpayers have trusted Okeechobee County Fire Rescue to respond to EMS (emergency medical service) calls since 1980. The county has never been notified of unsatisfactory EMS service level or response times by the City of Okeechobee.
“No evidence has been provided to show a contract for service will cause a change in ISO ratings for a subsequent increase or decrease in insurance rates.
“A contract for fire services was first discussed at the July 9, 2019 City Council Strategic Planning Workshop and has been an official agenda item at 12 separate duly advertised public meetings of the City Council and BOCC. Each of these meetings have allowed for comments and participation from the public.
“The information presented has been verified as true and correct by both the city and county administrative offices as of June 2, 2020.”