Only a few months after Pinellas officials hiked property taxes 46 percent to pay for the emergency medical services system, they are talking about raising the rate again if costs don't go down.
They've also broached the possibility that the cost of an ambulance ride could go up for the third year in a row.
The news came as part of an early forecast of county expenses for the 2012-13 fiscal year that showed officials expect the EMS fund to be in worse shape than expected next year. The reasons are low property values and expected increases in the cost of providing both first response and ambulance service.
That combination of factors is expected to result in a $5.9 million shortfall next year and a further $4 million shortfall in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the 18 fire departments that provide first response EMS service are expected to see costs increase by 4 percent per year through 2020. The costs for ambulance service are projected to increase by 6 percent annually through 2020.
At that rate, the EMS reserve fund — held for emergencies — would be out of money by the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The county increased ambulance fees — paid mostly by private insurance and federal and state taxes through the Medicare and Medicaid programs — 10.15 percent in 2010.
Last year, the county boosted the cost of an ambulance ride by 3.3 percent. A basic ambulance trip rose from $521.81 per person to $539.03. The cost for mileage also went up from $11.79 a mile to $12.18 a mile.
County Administrator Bob LaSala declined Friday to project how much taxes might increase and said that's a decision for the County Commission, which last year said it would not raise EMS taxes again. LaSala said his job is to present the commission with a balanced budget.
That could be done by increasing revenue, decreasing spending or some combination, he said.
The projections are very preliminary. More will likely be known next month when the fire districts submit their budgets.
The woeful EMS budget forecast was no surprise. The fund has been in trouble for several years. Last year, LaSala proposed changing the funding model by reducing the number of firefighter/paramedics and equalizing pay across the county.
But cities and districts objected, saying the proposal would shift a countywide tax obligation to local taxpayers and would lessen the level of service by eliminating vehicles and paramedics.
Three firefighters proposed two separate plans for having firefighters take patients to the hospital. The authors of both plans said the county would save millions by changing to a fire transport system rather than paying a private for-profit company for the service.
An EMS transportation study committee was established by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to hire a consultant to analyze the LaSala plan and the Sanford-Millican fire transport plan, proposed by Lt. Scott Sanford of Palm Harbor Fire Rescue and Capt. Jim Millican of the Lealman Fire Department. Under Sanford-Millican, firefighters would transport both emergency and nonemergency patients.
The other plan, written by Lt. Rick Koda of the Seminole Fire Department, suggested firefighters transport emergency patients only, leaving the nonemergency transport to a private company.
At least two members of the committee, County Commissioner Karen Seel and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, thought studying the LaSala and Sanford-Millican plans was too limiting and would not enable officials to make an informed decision about the best solution for Pinellas EMS.
The committee decided, at Friday's meeting, to somewhat expand the scope of the study to include an analysis of the cost of emergency-only fire transport.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.