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Proposal to pay for EMS study widens already deep gulf

By Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer

County commissioners are scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to spend another $300,000 on a study analyzing Pinellas' emergency medical services system.

But the agenda item has morphed from a routine decision about spending into an issue that could further corrode the strained relationship and feeling of distrust cities and fire districts have for the county government.

At issue is a recommendation by County Administrator Bob LaSala that commissioners hire a consultant to analyze a proposal he made last year to change the way Pinellas pays for its EMS system. A committee, created by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, had recommended the analysis cover the existing system and fire transport as well as LaSala's plan.

The recommendation surprised many, including County Commissioner Ken Welch, who said he does not believe LaSala's plan is a viable solution to the problems facing the county's EMS system. "I don't understand why I see this continuously being recommended when it's not supported," Welch said.

Some say LaSala's recommendation is an indication of his refusal to listen to others and a signal that the county can't be trusted. LaSala could not be reached for comment.

"I couldn't see how his actions could do anything other than foster or increase our distrust of the county administration," Pinellas Park City Council member Ed Taylor said. The distrust is "not necessarily of the individual commissioners. . . . We're lucky to have several of them. I think they have a problem themselves of dealing with their county administrator."

LaSala's attempt to push his recommendation through at "turbo speed," Taylor said, is business as usual for the county.

"It's not the first time" this sort of thing has happened, Taylor said. Why should cities try to work with the county "when it finally gets up there, they're going to do what they wanted to do in the first place? He's not going to pay attention to our opinions anyway."

Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Bert Polk, head of the county fire chiefs association, said, "I'm not real sure what has happened there. . . . We just want to be heard and we want an honest, open and transparent process, and these are things that tend to tear that down. It wears at the trust factor."

The battle over the future of the county's $103 million EMS system has been brewing for a long time. It burst into flames last year after LaSala proposed a plan that would change the way the county pays the 18 cities and fire districts that provide first response EMS service. Firefighters countered with proposals to allow fire personnel to take patients to the hospital. The battle raged until late last year, when it ended up in front of the county Legislative delegation because the county wanted changes to the state law that set up Pinellas' EMS system.

Latvala, who could not be reached for comment, suggested setting up a committee with members from the county side and fire side. The goal was to have both sides work together to find a consultant to evaluate the LaSala plan, the current system and at least one of the fire transport proposals. The committee's recommendation was to go to the County Commission, which would make the final choice and pay for the work.

At first, it appeared committee members were willing to work together and compromise. But that fell apart when it came to evaluating the four companies that put in bids. County officials thought low bidder Tri Data Division — System Planning Corp. of Arlington, Va., was biased because it had done an analysis for St. Petersburg that concluded that fire transport could work in that city. The fire side thought the highest bidder, Fitch & Associates of Platte City, Mo., was biased against fire transport.

Tri Data came in first under the point system that was used, primarily because the bid was less — $99,639 compared with Fitch's $298,600. When Tri Data came out about five points ahead, the county side suggested going back and changing the point system so Fitch would win. That didn't happen, and the two companies were invited to make presentations. Fitch came in first. But the spat over the point system ate into the tissue-thin trust that had been building between the parties, said Polk, the head of the chief's association.

Welch said he heard complaints from people who were upset that cost was a factor in the first evaluation but not the second.

"They clearly thought there was manipulation," Welch said.

But Welch said he believes the county might get the information it needs from Fitch provided commissioners can make clear that they want information on which to build a system.

"I don't want to get into just a 'here are two models, pick one,'" he said.

Commissioner Neil Brickfield agreed that complete, wide-ranging information is necessary.

"I want to know the answers for all of this and not be guessing," Brickfield said. "The only way we can is to look at all of (the proposals) and everything in between."