OKEECHOBEE — The signing of an interlocal agreement for fire services during Tuesday night’s council meeting marks the end of an era for the city of Okeechobee unless the county commissioners decline to sign when presented with the contract. The agreement will take effect on June 1, 2021.
City Attorney John Fumero presented the contract to the council and said it represented many hours of collaboration between him, the county administrator, city administrator and the county attorney. They have also been consulting with union officials, pension experts, labor union experts and many others. Fumero has retained two experts to help make sure no mistakes are made, an attorney based in Tallahassee who practices exclusively in the area of pension law — Jim Lin, (Lin is reviewing the agreement now and may have some minor comments later.) The Florida Division of Retirement is also reviewing the matter, he said. This is someone who oversees firefighter pension funds. “We are hopeful they will complete their review in the next couple weeks, but they would not commit to a timetable.” He went on to say there are four exhibits which have not been finalized — Exhibit A: a list of employees to be hired by the county, Exhibit B: the temporary positions which is still in flux, Exhibit C: a pension election form and Exhibit D: a detailed inventory of vehicles and equipment that will be transferred to the county.
Councilman Bob Jarriel moved to “approve the interlocal agreement between Okeechobee County and the city of Okeechobee for fire services in substantial conformance with the draft dates Oct. 12, 2020 that has been presented tonight, recognizing that there may be additional refinements to the agreement including those addressing labor and pension issues. If there are material changes to the interlocal agreement hereafter, staff is directed to present such changes to council for approval.”
The city will be paying a fee equal to what fire assessment would be in the city, explained Mayor Dowling Watford.
Frank W. Williamson of the Economic Council spoke and thanked the council for its efforts to save the tax payer dollars and for efforts to take care of its employees. As they have since the very beginning, the economic council recommended the city council sign the agreement.
Business owner Steve Dobbs spoke and said he had been downsized, laid off in the past and wanted to reassure the firefighters that there is life after that. He said he had a conversation with someone recently, who said the whole thing was a business decision and he agreed, but said, it did not move at the speed of business, it moved at the speed of government. “If this had been Steve Dobbs Fire Department and Wes Williamson’s Fire Department, this would have been over 15 months ago.”
Mayor Watford said everyone knew how he was going to vote and if the city wanted to save tax money, he felt it was an issue of saving tax money versus services. “The city exists to provide services to its citizens. I think we have to look at whether the savings are worth the services we will be giving up.” He went on to say if they wanted to save tax money they could just do away with the city and they wouldn’t have city taxes. “There are times to save money, and there are times when you have to pay for that service.” Okeechobee City has provided fire service since 1915 or so, he said, and this will be a major change. “I would have preferred if we were going to make such a major change we would have had a referendum and let the voters decide if that’s what they want to do, because this is a major, major change.” He said if their goal was truly to save the taxpayers money, he felt they should have instituted a fire tax rather than doing an interlocal agreement and said he objected to just giving away trucks and equipment that city tax payers paid for. He had several other objections to the agreement but said one of his biggest objections was that five people were making the decision. One of them would be leaving in January. Two of them indicated they might not be there in two years. That means three of the five will not be there to deal with the fallout of the decision they are making.
The council voted immediately following the mayor’s comments, and as he predicted, his was the only dissenting vote.
During the council comments portion of the meeting, Councilman Jarriel said the council is made up of five people and when a vote is taken whether it is 3-2 or 4-1, he felt that once the vote is taken, that should be the end of it. He said he felt the mayor made his decision 18 months ago without waiting for any facts. He went on to say he was disappointed by the mayor’s comments. He acknowledged Councilman Wes Abney would be leaving at the end of his term and that he and Councilman Bobby Keefe were there for their terms and said they were obligated to make what they feel are the best decisions for the city. “We’re not here to sit here and wait, because we’ve only got two years and say, no, we’re not going to vote on anything. We just have to sit here for two years and do nothing. That’s not why we were elected. My obligation is to the city taxpayers.” He went on to say he would always respect the council whether he was on the winning side of a vote or the losing side. He would not put any of the other members down outside. “Whatever the council decides, I’m going to accept that, and once I leave this meeting, that’s over. I hope I don’t hear on the radio tomorrow or read in the paper that someone was totally against this. We’ve taken 18 months to get all the information and the facts. The vote tonight was on the facts.”
Council member Monica Clark said she spoke with the firefighters and they were appreciative of the severance packages the city put together for them. She said they told her it made them feel better to know they were being taken care of.
With the end of the city fire department, not only will city residents no longer have a fire department in the center of the town, they will also lose some things they may not have thought about. This will be the last year Santa drives by your house on a firetruck and waves to wish your child a Merry Christmas. The city firefighters will no longer be in the park handing out water, hats and other things during parades and festivals. They will no longer be able to come to your home, church or business to do a courtesy inspection to help you figure out what you needed to do to make sure you and your loved ones were safe. They will not be going to schools to do safety programs. There will be no one in the city fire station to check your blood pressure if you are in town and not feeling well. Your children will not be able to tour a fire department, because the county has suspended visits due to COVID-19. And the city was the only place kids could go to see what a fire truck or fire department looked like. These are just a few of the little extras done by the city fire department.
In other news, the council discussed creating a Flagler Park Improvements Citizen Board. This was originally proposed at the Oct. 6 meeting. The purpose of the committee will be to participate in and make recommendations on specified aspects of the Flagler Park design and improvements. They will solicit citizen input regarding proposed and potential improvements and enhancements to the park. The committee will be comprised of seven members and two alternates appointed by the council.
Mayor Watford presented a proclamation recognizing Oct. 24, 2020 as World Polio Day. Recipients included Melisa Jahner, President of the Rotary Club of Okeechobee, and Denise Whitehead of Okeechobee County Parks and Recreation.