OKEECHOBEE — The proposal for Okeechobee County to provide fire services inside the Okeechobee city limits as well was again a topic of discussion at the Sept. 11 meeting of the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners.
This time the commissioners focused on the question of city EMTs. Okeechobee County’s policy is that all new fire/rescue hires must be paramedics. This is also in the county’s contract with the union.
The city fire department now has 13 employees, according to information shared at previous city and county meetings. Using the economy of scale, Okeechobee County could provide fire protection in the city with six additional paramedics and one additional fire inspector. That would leave six city employees without jobs. The city council has considered paying the county extra to keep those employees on the job until they could move into county positions that open up through attrition.
“You would end up having additional employees for a while even if there was attrition, if they were not paramedics,” said County Administrator Robbie Chartier.
“The question is: How long would the city be willing to pay for them if they have no intention of becoming paramedics?” asked Commissioner Kelly Owens.
“We can’t have a separate set of rules for a group of employees,” said Chartier. “Those employees who are EMTs would have to get their paramedic certification within two years.”
“We had discussed this idea, that folks more than seven could come over to the county, but for any employees over that seven, the city would be writing an additional check to cover that cost,” said County Attorney Wade Vose. He said he is hoping they can sort “how many additional human beings are looking to come over.”
“If you can get them to tell you how many people will come over and who is coming over, you have earned your money for this year,” said Board Chairman Terry Burroughs.
“If they are paramedics, they could move into positions as attrition open up. If they stay an EMT, they are on the city’s dime,” said Commissioner David Hazellief.
“If you’ve got two years to get your paramedic (certification) and you don’t do it, you need to go somewhere they don’t require you to be a paramedic,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. He noted if they keep all the employees, the city won’t save any money, which was the reason the city suggested the change.
“They went to the city where it wasn’t required. Now we’re going to take their job away if they don’t become a paramedic. They took the option of going to a department that didn’t require that. Not everyone has to become a paramedic,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.
“We have two issues bouncing around. One is, we will take more than seven human beings. We’ll take more if the city pays for it,” said Vose. “Second issue, is will those additional human beings have to comply with our rules, and become paramedics within two years.”
“Having two sets of rules for similarly situated employees within a bargaining unit, you’re going to have a problem,” the attorney commented.
“The other bargaining issue I am looking at — at the end of two years if they have become medics, if we don’t have the slots for them to slide into, the city needs to continue to pay for them, but now they will be paying for medics,” said Owens. The city council is going to have to decide how long they are willing to pay for those extra employees, she said.
At this point, they don’t know when attrition will occur to open up more fire/rescue positions.
“We only have one person eligible to retire at this point,” said Fire Chief Ralph Franklin. He said the current union contract establishes the pay scale, including pay rates for temporary employees. “Currently right now, we are not accepting applications unless you are a certified paramedic.”
He said he can put the city EMTs to work as additional temporary help. He added he can’t move a temporary employee into a permanent spot through attrition unless the employee is a certified paramedic.
“If an employee who resigns is a paramedic, and the one who is on temporary status is not a paramedic, I am still going to have to go outside to hire,” said Franklin.
“We don’t want anyone to lose their job. We don’t want anyone to be hurt,” said Goodbread. “Some of them are going to have to up their game.”
He said the requirement that all are paramedics makes the county safer.
Vose said six are coming over as paramedics and one as an inspector. The rest are EMTs. They will come in as temporary hires.
“At the end of the two years, if they are medics, if we don’t have the slots, the city will be continuing to pay for them,” said Owens.
Commissioners agreed the county would pay for paramedic training for the EMTs who come over, under the program the county has used for county EMTs. The county will pay the tuition and provide the time off to attend classes in exchange for an agreement the employee will stay with the county as a paramedic for at least two years. If the employee left earlier, they would be required to reimburse the county on a pro-rated basis.
“We do not know who is coming over. We do not know if this whole scenario is even going to happen,” said Burroughs.
Culpepper said if the county takes over the fire department and it works well, next they will think about asking the county to take over the police department. He said eventually there will be no need for a city.