OKEECHOBEE — Once again, the topic of a fire department merger was on the table at the city council meeting Tuesday night, June 2. The discussion began with an apology from Mayor Dowling Watford, who said he knew it was the city council who had asked for the merger. The county commission did not ask for it. “The county commission has caught, in my opinion, probably more flack than they deserve over this,” he said. He went on to say that he felt some comments had been made that were derogatory toward the county staff, and he believed the council were all in agreement that the paramedics and firefighters on their staff are all very professional, and they would not be entering into a contract with them if they did not feel that way.
A letter was read into the record from Local Firefighters’ Union 2918 asking the city to cease and desist all negotiations with the county unless they can ensure they will have jobs for all the employees.
Mayor Watford also read a letter from the county commission on the subject. In the letter, Commissioner Terry Burroughs made it clear the board of commissioners has not made any decision for or against a referendum.
Mayor Watford asked the council if they still wanted to continue with the negotiations despite the county not wanting to agree to most of the proposals the city asked for, and the four members of the council said yes.
Councilman Bob Jarriel said the merger was brought up last year to reduce the expenses of the city, to reduce the taxes of the residents. “Somehow, we’ve got off track,” he said. “When we’re paying 8% in the county for taxes, it’s not fair to our senior citizens on a fixed income. If we can save $500,000 or $600,000 a year and give them the same service…” He went on to say he felt the county was already covering 87% or so of the calls here and doing a good job. “That only leaves about 300 calls,” he said. “That’s not even one a day.” He disagrees that they need seven people, he said, but that’s beside the point. “If we had no complaint over the EMT all these years, why would we have a complaint now?” he asked.
Later he said it is unreasonable to expect the county to quote a price for seven employees and then tell them they have to take on 12 especially when labor is the biggest factor in the expense. “ I was in business all my life, if I needed one or two employees, I’m not going to hire seven, because I can’t afford them.”
Mayor Watford mentioned that a suggestion was made by one of the county commissioners that the two administrators and a board member from the city and the county sit down together to try to work out the finer details rather than hash it all out in public.
Councilwoman Monica Clark expressed disappointment and sadness over the comments made recently about the city, the county and the county firefighters. “We are all one community,” she said. “I would hope we are all coming together to do what’s best for our community, and making false accusations and personal comments has no place in my book at all. I’m just disgusted with some of the comments that have been made.”
She said she does not feel confident negotiating the contract, and after the last meeting, she talked to Tori Fatjo the District 12 representative from the firefighters’ union. She told Councilwoman Clark that she has been involved in many consolidations or mergers because small cities just cannot afford to keep their fire departments anymore. She said in every situation, they have hired ALL the firefighters at their current rank, and maybe the first year it cost the city a little more than the second year, third year and fourth year, but it could be done.
“One of the things we are missing from all of this is the labor aspect from the union, and I think if we are going to put together a task force, we need to have Josh or Tori involved in this process. One of the sticklers in all of this has been, I said I would never agree to this without our firefighters that are going to the county getting paid what they are getting paid now, at the levels of years of service. It’s a stickler for me,” said Councilwoman Clark. “If we can’t work together for the benefit of the county and the city, then I don’t think we need to continue.”
Councilman Wes Abney agreed about having the union representatives help and said from day one he has wanted an outside consultant to come in and help them with this.
The consensus of the council was to set up a task force, of sorts, consisting of the city and county administrators, a member of the city council, a member of the county commission, both attorneys and one or two union representatives.
In other business, the city council approved the first reading and set the final public hearing date to July 7 for an ordinance allowing package sales of alcoholic beverages within the city limits on Sunday.
The 2019 audited financials were reviewed and approved.
Finally, the school resource officer agreement with Okeechobee Christian Academy was reviewed and approved.