OKEECHOBEE — The homeless population in the downtown parks was the first order of business at the Okeechobee City Council meeting on Nov. 5.
Mike Mammarelli, owner of Joey’s Pizza, attended the city council meeting in order to speak to the council about the parks in front of his restaurant. “We’ve got a beautiful park out there,” he said. “But, I’m having a lot of homeless problems out there. A lot of people try to panhandle my customers in front of the place.” He said it makes it bad for business, and he believes it is causing less people to visit the park.
“It’s getting a little scary. You find them lying across the benches up there,” he explained. He said one man was lying on a park bench half naked. “It really looks terrible for the park. There’s probably half a dozen guys coming in and out of the park. They are homeless.” He went on to say with times being as tough as they are, this makes it even harder for the businesses there. He was hoping the council could look into the problem and see if they could do anything about it.
Police Chief Bob Peterson said this has been an ongoing problem. He and City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca have been discussing the best way to handle the problem. They are trying to come up with some type of ordinance. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he said. “You can’t tell somebody he can’t stay in a public place.” He said if they are panhandling, that is breaking the law, and there are things they can do about that. “We have to have a reason to tell them to leave, other than they don’t have a shirt on and we don’t like them there. We know there is a problem, and we are working on it.”
Councilman Bobby Keefe said a second man spoke to him about the same problem. Dave Feltenberger and his wife own property in front of the park as well, and have similar concerns about the homeless hanging out in the park. Feltenberger offered his employees and supplies to build some type of open shelter where these men could go to sleep. He would like to include a bathroom facility as well where they could wash up and use the facilities. “Obviously, it would not be in the park, because it shouldn’t be there,” said Councilman Keefe.
Councilman Keefe said Feltenberger understood it could not be a closed shelter, because it would have to be staffed in order to prevent drug use inside. His intention is to build something open enough that law enforcement could drive by several times each night and see inside without getting out of their vehicles — just something out of the rain where the homeless could sleep and use the bathroom.
In other business, Finance Director India Riedel was presented with a longevity certificate for 15 years of service to the city.
Approval was granted to purchase a software upgrade to the police department Spillman System. The cost will be $19,925, and the software will help provide uniform crime report data required by the state of Florida. Because this was not budgeted, Chief Peterson said they plan to make do with two new police cars next year and use the money budgeted for the third car to pay for the software. “We knew this was coming,” he said, “but we did not know when.”
The council discussed the future direction of code enforcement in the city. Chief Peterson said they had two choices. They could continue doing things the way they do now, but he said with the existing structure, they cannot keep up. He went on to tell the council if they wanted to continue with the beautification of the city and making the city look like a place people would want to stay, live and put a business, it would take, not only more effort, but also more money than they are currently allocated.
Councilman Bob Jarriel said some of the code enforcement issues brought before the council in the past were a year or two old and not resolved. “That’s not good for the city or the neighbors.” He concluded that he felt they should go forward with code enforcement because citizens have indicated this is what they want.
Councilman Wes Abney noted that code enforcement has put over $22,000 in the city’s general fund in the last six months. He suggested using the funds the Economic Corporation turned down for code enforcement. Councilman Keefe and Councilwoman Monica Clark both agreed and said they would like to move forward with code enforcement and hire some full time employees. Mayor Dowling Watford was the loan dissenter, saying he felt code enforcement was doing a good job now, and there was no need at this time to do more.
Chief Peterson told the council the code enforcement secretary left and Fred Sterling, the code enforcement officer plans to retire in December. This will leave them without a code enforcement officer. He said this will give them the opportunity to start over and do things “fresh and right.” He would like to hire a main code enforcement officer and an assistant who is capable of getting out in the field and helping out rather than a secretary. He wants to hire an experienced code enforcement officer so they do not have to spend six months training this person. Sterling is willing to stay until they find his replacement, but he has already turned in his resignation. They will offer $18 per hour for the new code enforcement officer. The assistant would make the same amount as entry level secretaries. The total cost for both positions with benefits would be approximately $110,509. Now, they are paying $70,964 for Sterling and a part time employee. The additional cost to the city would be $39,545 each year. Considering the money code enforcement put into the general fund over the last six months, he believes the program will pay for itself, although he cannot make any promises. The council voted to allow him to go ahead with his plan.
The council discussed the hiring of a professional landscape architect service. They sent out a request for qualifications last month and five companies applied. Ranked number one by the committee was the firm of Calvin, Giodano & Associates. Although, several council members expressed disappointment in the way the ranking was handled. Councilman Keefe said he felt the council should have had access to presentations from the companies, and he was not happy with the lack of communication from staff. After some discussion, it was decided the ranking would be rejected and the council will see presentations from the companies before a second ranking takes place.
City fire fighters were on the agenda again. This time, the discussion was on their annual and sick leave payout. In recent discussions, the council has attempted to find a way to make longevity with the city a factor in the firefighters’ payouts. Staff suggested using sick and annual leave payout as a way to achieve the goal. This would be approximately $138,000 total for everyone in the department and would be paid out based on seniority. The longer they have been with the department, the bigger the payout. As it stands now in the interlocal agreement, the firefighters will be given the option of taking a 50% payout on their accumulated sick leave or carrying it over to the county. If they carry it over to the county, the city will pay the county for that sick leave. If the firefighters choose a payout, they would start work for the county with no accrued sick days. It would be like beginning a new career at zero days. Either way, the city will be paying the sick leave costs. The discussion involved allowing the firefighters to take a 100% payout rather than 50% as a way to give them a bigger payout for service with the city. It was decided the council needs more precise figures before they make a decision on whether to offer this to the firefighters, and it will be on the agenda for the next meeting.