OKEECHOBEE — Once again, a fire service interlocal was a topic of conversation at the city council meeting Monday night, Sept. 21. City Attorney John Fumero went over the terms of the preliminary agreement, including the possibility of paying some of the employees lump sums to make up differences in salaries.
One of the issues involved the city paying for EMTs to work at the county while they studied to become paramedics. The county agreed to allow this for up to two years. The county would pay for the schooling, but the employee would be responsible to pay it back if they did not pass. Councilman Bob Jarriel said he had a problem with paying for anyone to got to work for the county as an EMT. If they wanted to go to school, they were already given that opportunity, and he felt they should have taken it when it was offered.
“I’ll go back to our first meeting with the county. At that time, the county said they were only going to hire paramedics, and would give city employees special recognition. They didn’t say they would hire them. We came back and spent the taxpayers’ money to offer all the people to be able to go and become a paramedic at the city’s expense. Evidently, seven decided that was a good deal and they would do it. I think they should have accepted it when we offered it,” he said.
He said he did not have any problem with buying out any employees’ contracts or making up additional pay, but he does not like the idea of paying for employees to go over to the county and “sit around deciding whether to become paramedics.”
Councilman Wes Abney said he did not think they would be ready to sign anything until they knew exactly to the penny what the cost would be to the city. “Do we know that? I don’t think we do.” He also said he understood all along that the city would pay the salaries of the three EMTs who wanted to work for the county until they became paramedics. He did not have a problem with that. “I consider those employees part of the attrition process we all agreed on several times.”
When asked if his employees had enough information to make a decision, Fire Chief Herb Smith said “no.” He asked if it would be possible to give his employees options, maybe a severance package if they did not go to the county, because not everyone can go to the county anyway.
Councilman Keefe said the council understood the employees felt in the dark, and the council felt a similar need for information. They need to know who has a desire to go over to the county so they know how much it will cost. “We gotta talk here. This is pretty pathetic here. I apologize I have not come to see you,” said Keefe to Smith.
Smith said, “As the leader of my department, I can’t give them information. I can’t make it up. I talk to individuals. I talk to everybody here. We all have different ideas, but these guys need to be set down with numbers, with options...”
Mayor Dowling Watford said they needed to make a decision on whether they would offer every employee the choice of 20 weeks pay or going to work for the county, or would only those who cannot go work for the county be given the chance to get the 20 weeks’ pay. He said they also needed to decide if they would pay the three men to work as EMTs for the county. Once the council makes those decisions, the employees can make their decisions, he said.
Council Woman Monica Clark suggested giving all 13 employees a separation package of some type because all of them would be severing their employment with the city whether they went to work for the county or not. She said they could base the amount of the settlement on the amount of time the employee was with the city, and make 20 weeks’ pay the highest amount since that is the limit they are allowed to give, by law.
Josh Borgstrom the firefighters’ union president spoke and said he felt the council and the commissioners were forgetting about impact bargaining for each employee. He also said, “and the fact that some of the city council is saying that they really don’t care if they went to medic school or not. If they didn’t then, oh well. That’s wrong. Everyone’s got different circumstances. Everyone’s got different scenarios. That’s wrong. We’ve got guys back there who are just starting their third year of the job. Why would they want to take a year out of their life to go be a paramedic for one year? That doesn’t make any sense. Every employee has an independent reason for what they did and why they did it and that needs to be found out why. That’s y’all’s responsibility to do that.” He suggested waiting until paramedic school ended to go any farther with this agreement.
Councilman Jarriel said he was concerned about paying the salary for the three firefighters for two more years while they worked for the county. “Who will pay that money back to the city tax payers?” he asked. He said the council already offered to send those firefighters to paramedic school, and they did not want to go. He does not see any reason the city should pay their salary as EMTs while they work for the county and go to school to become paramedics. He said he thinks the agreement they are negotiating with the county is more than fair.
Borgstrom asked, “You think it’s more than fair for someone who has put their life on the line for this city to potentially lose $20,000 over the course of three years? You think that’s fair?”
Councilman Jarriel replied, “We didn’t ask them to lose it...” He tried to go on but was interrupted.
Borgstrom said, “Well, you’re not helping them keep it either.
Councilman Jarriel said he worked for RCA years ago and one day they came to him and told him they were going out of the computer business and he was out of a job. They did not care what happened to him. It was a business decision. “That’s what we are trying to make tonight, a business decision. We’re trying to help all these employees, and that’s where you’re wrong! We’re trying to help them. That’s why we’ve been fighting to get this where we’re at now.”
Borgstrom asked why employee number 5 with 17 years of service would have to take a $28,000 pay cut, and Councilman Jarriel said that was why they were discussing giving them separation packages. They want to make the employees whole.
“You can’t!” yelled Borgstrom. “You can only do 20 weeks! And that’s only three years, what about the other two years?
Councilman Jarriel said, “I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t think you should even be in this discussion.”
“I don’t think YOU should be either,” shot back Borgstrom.
Capt. Lalo Rodriguez asked why they couldn’t wait until September of 2021 when it was time for the union to open up negotiations. Then the firefighters could go over to the county with the salaries they have now, he said. In addition, they would know which firefighter had successfully completed the paramedic course. He also questioned whether the taxpayers would see any savings if and when the fire department was gone. “What are you going to do with that money?” he asked Councilman Jarriel. “We’re losing a public safety for what?”
Councilman Jarriel said it was not his decision but was up to the council.
“On social media, they say the economic council is going to plant trees with it and beautify Okeechobee,” said Rodriguez. “Will the city tax payers really save or is the city gonna put it in their pocket and they can do whatever they want with it?
Council woman Clark said there would be no savings the first year, because they are taking money out of savings just to meet the budget.
The council voted to direct staff to come up with a severance package for each employee of the city fire department based on years of service. The maximum will be equivalent to 20 weeks of salary.
After further discussion, the council voted 3 to 2 in favor of paying the EMTs’ salaries while they worked for the county and attended paramedic school for up to two years. Councilmen Jarriel and Keefe cast the dissenting votes.
Councilman Jarriel made a motion to approve the interlocal agreement, and Councilman Keefe seconded the motion, but Council woman Clark said she thought they should heed the attorney’s advice and wait until some issues were ironed out. Councilman Abney said he would not be comfortable signing without more information. Mayor Watford voted no as well, and the motion failed to pass.
Councilman Abney requested they discuss the collective bargaining agreement and the possible benefits of postponing the signing of an interlocal agreement during the next meeting and Mayor Watford agreed it would be on the agenda.