OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County homeowners will see a $15 a year increase in the annual fee for fire protection and a $15.40 per residence increase for EMS fees in the 2015/2016 fiscal year.
The assessment rates were approved at the Tuesday, Aug. 25, meeting of the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners.
The 2014/2015 annual residential fire assessment was $90. The 2015/2016 rate will be $105.
The 2014/2015 annual residential EMS assessment was $64.60. The 2015/2016 rate will be $80.
Fees for hotels/RV spaces, commercial property and vacant land will also increase proportionately.
Properties within the city limits are only charged the EMS assessment. They do not pay the fire assessment because the city has its own fire department, funded by the city’s ad valorem taxes. Those in the unincorporated areas of the county pay both fire and EMS assessments.
The increase in the current year is required to hire six additional fire/rescue personnel, to cover the increase in call volume.
County staff recommended the county adopt a two-year rate. A rate study will be conducted in late FY15/16 which may impact rates for FY16/17.
Commission Chairman Frank Irby questioned the amount kept in the fire/rescue budget in reserves for capital investments.
County administrator Robbie Chartier said the capital investment reserves include money saved up for replacement of major equipment. She said they save up the money for these major expenses over several years.
Fire Chief Ralph Franklin explained they are working with the state to develop a budget that anticipates major expenses so they won’t need big tax spikes in years to replace equipment.
“I don’t understand why we had the fire/EMS rate at one level and then we lowered it. The answer was that we were not spending the money,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs.
In 2012 the fire assessment was $100 and the EMS rate was $74.
He asked why they didn’t keep the rate constant and use the money to refurbish the stations.
Mrs. Chartier explained the assessment was lowered at a time when the commissioners were trying to lower the total tax bill.
Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said the current staffing is like playing Russian roulette with public safety. He said he does not want to see the county “continue to play the odds” by operating with substandard staffing.
Commissioner Margaret Helton asked if it would save money if six people worked 12 hour shifts instead of 24 hour shifts. She noted there seem to be peak hours for fire calls.
The chief said from a salary point of view, it would be the same amount of money. He said based on safety issues, he believes putting the six new staffers on 24-hour shifts is the most efficient way to go.
Commissioner Burroughs said if they add six staffers, it would match up with the projected number of calls. He said he does not expect to add any more staff in the immediate future.
“Unless there is significant growth in the community, and I am talking about a population explosion in the next few years, I think that is where it is going to stay,” he said.
Chairman Irby said that a $15 a household increase adds up to $750,000 out of the pockets of those who live in this community. He voted against the increase.
The county also approved EMS rates at $80 per dwelling unit. The 2014/2016 was $64.60.
This includes a portion of the cost of the six additional employees for fire/rescue, and a major expense of the purchase of an ambulance.
Commissioner Burroughs said there is a problem with people who call 9-1-1 for EMS and then refuse transport. He said the county can’t charge insurance or Medicaid for those calls. Some people abuse this, he said. He said that the county should bill those individuals for the EMS call.
Commissioner Culpepper pointed out that sometimes someone else sees a person collapse and calls 9-1-1. He asked if a person who refuses transport should be billed if a stranger called 9-1-1.
The chief said they are working on a plan to address billing for those who refuse treatment, and will work on a system to make sure it is fair and equitable.
In other business Tuesday, the commissioners approved the rates for solid waste collection. The proposed rates have not changed since last year. The annual residential rate is $220.
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