OKEECHOBEE — “Consolidation is akin to diabetes,” said Dale Ann Watford at the city council meeting on Feb. 18. “You start cuttin’ a little bit. It starts with your toe. Then it’s your foot. Then it’s your leg. If y’all ain’t careful, this is just my knower (hand gesture over heart) y’all might be out of a job one day if you’re not very, very, very careful. Cuttin’ a little bit here and a little bit there.”
She went on to tell a story of a time her family had a medical emergency and the city fire department saved her son-in-law’s life. She firmly believes the county could not have arrived in time. She also mentioned a fire that occurred at the home of a friend, and said if it weren’t for the city fire department arriving so quickly, they would have lost their home and the two homes next door would have been lost as well because county firefighters are a lot farther away and have farther to travel.
“I hope y’all are really praying about this because it is affecting a whole lot of folks,” she said.
Councilman Bob Jarriel said he understood what she was saying and the main reason this whole thing was started eight months ago was to save people just like her, the taxpayers in the city, money.
“We pay too much tax, and that’s what the whole thing of it was,“ he said.
“If that means they’re a gonna come a runnin’, I’d rather pay that little bit of extra tax, than them not come a runnin’,” she replied, and several people in the room could be heard to agree. “Over the big pie, it ain’t that much money.”
Council member Monica Clark explained the reason she believed they began the discussion about consolidation/contracts/etc. was because the city is spending more than it brings in each year, and it can’t bring in enough taxes to cover the budget.
“We’re going into our savings account, as I explain it to some people. When you have $10,000 in your savings account, and you are pulling out $1,200 a year to make ends meet at your household, how much longer are you going to have that budget?” she asked. “How much longer will you have savings? We are trying to be fiscally responsible for the taxpayers of the city because we cannot collect enough taxes to cover the difference, so we are trying to make responsible decisions.”
The council has not received the contract they requested from the county yet, so they are not able to proceed with making a decision, but they did take a look at the proposal Capt. Lalo Rodriguez gave them last month for EMS services done by the city, and City Administrator Marcos Montes De Oca and Financial Director India Riedel spent several weeks going over figures to come up with a potential budget for the implementation of EMS services within the city.
According to Mr. Montes De Oca, the current fire department budget with dispatch included is $1.64 million, and with EMS, it would be $1.97 million, but with revenue, it can be operated at approximately the same millage rate as it is now. However, now, all city residents and businesses pay an EMS assessment, and under the new proposal, they would not have to pay this assessment, so they would actually come out ahead.
Councilman Jarriel originally asked to table the discussion on the EMS services until they had the contract from the county, because he said he thought they did not have enough information to have an intelligent conversation without it, but he was overruled by the rest of the council, who said they believed since it had already been pulled from the last agenda and that there were a lot of people at the meeting specifically to hear the discussion, they should go ahead with it.
Councilman Jarriel said someone will have to pay for two ambulances and just saying you might get a grant won’t cut it. “I played the lottery last weekend, and I didn’t win. That’s basically what a grant is — the lottery.” He also said they did not show insurance on the vehicles or maintenance or storage. “Are we gonna park it out in the parking lot with our fire truck now?” In addition, he disputed the transport figures, saying the county only collects 55% of what they bill but the figures in the proposal are for 100%. He asked why they did not have an additional person on the proposal to do the billing and insurance for all those calls, and said if they had someone who already worked there who had the time to do all that paperwork, then they had someone working there right now they did not need, because that is a lot of paperwork.
He also said the county said they only need six firemen, but the city says they need 13. “If you want to do a proposal, go to the county, and follow it,” he said. “They show six fire/medics here. The county says we need six. We need twice that many at the city? The figures just don’t add up, and I don’t want the city to say, well, the county is wrong. There should be three firemen on the truck. They said there should be two…”
There is a poll on a Facebook page call The Scoup in Okeechobee asking what Joe Public thinks about getting rid of the city fire department and having the county handle all fire calls. As of the writing of this story, 375 people believe the city fire department should be left as is, and 22 people believe it should be closed.
In other business, the final discussion will take place March 3 for the amending of the Sunday alcohol sale times.
A resolution declaring the city of Okeechobee a Second Amendment Sanctuary City was adopted.
Town hall meeting March 11
On Wednesday, March 11, at 6 p.m., there will be a town hall meeting at the Okeechobee Freshman Campus auditorium. The address is 610 S.W. Second Ave. (behind Golden Corral). These town hall meetings were begun as a way for city residents to air their concerns and ideas about the city in a more informal setting. Although last year the council members just listened to the questions and comments without responding during the meeting (responses were given later through follow up phone calls, visits or emails), this year, they are planning to make the meetings a little less formal and will attempt to answer some general questions, if at all possible, during the meeting. Questions and comments can even be sent in advance to email@example.com or call 863-763-3372 ext. 9814.