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Cheaper fire service may come with another price, some officials say

By Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer

One solution to cutting the cost of fire service for property owners in some unincorporated areas seems obvious to county commissioners — shop around for the cheapest deal.

City and fire district officials, especially chiefs, say doing so could shift costs and reduce the quality of service. And one chief, Dunedin's Bud Meyer, warned that commissioners are "taking the chance of destroying the whole mutual aid concept by starting to do this.''

Meyer was responding to a suggestion by some county commissioners that Pinellas look into the possibility of taking away the contract for fire service in some unincorporated areas if there's another department that will do it for less money.

Under the current system, 18 fire departments provide fire protection across Pinellas County. Although the departments are independent, they function as if they are consolidated into one system. All firefighters receive the same training and meet the same standards. Departments back each other up — if the closest fire truck is not available, the next closest automatically responds even if the emergency is outside its city or district. When there is a fire, firefighters from multiple jurisdictions answer the call.

It's a system designed for efficiency and cost savings as there is no need to duplicate some expensive equipment from one department to the next. And, if a department can rely on staffing from a neighbor, it doesn't have to hire as many people.

But when it comes to finances, it's a different story. Each department has its own pay and benefit scales and each is funded separately. City departments get their money for fire protection from local property taxes and fees. Four areas of unincorporated Pinellas are protected by independent fire districts. They finance their departments by taxing or setting fees in their areas.

Then there are the so-called dependent districts. Those are 12 areas of Pinellas that look to the county for fire protection. But the county has no fire department, so it raises property taxes to pay other departments to provide the service — an amount that is different in each of those areas. (See chart on facing page.) The county must pay what the department says the service costs. It has no way to bargain down the price.

That irks county commissioners.

"I look at those numbers and they just scream, 'Help me,' from (the standpoint of) the taxpayer's pocketbook," Commissioner Nancy Bostock said.

The county's delivery system is top notch and the coordination between departments is commendable, she said, but the funding method is terrible.

One possibility that has caught commissioners' attention is putting the contracts for the dependent districts out to bid. That's what happened this year with the unincorporated area between South Pasadena and Gulfport that is served by the city of South Pasadena's department. St. Petersburg won the bid.

It's a great deal for taxpayers in unincorporated South Pasadena who are paying about $3.13 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value for fire service. But come the Oct. 1, start of the new fiscal year, they'll be paying about $0.91 per $1,000, a drop of about 79 percent. And it's good for St. Petersburg, which will get about $75,000 a year from the contract.

It's not so good for at least two South Pasadena firefighters who will lose their jobs, said Linda Hallas, South Pasadena's city attorney. In the bidding, Hallas said, St. Petersburg had the advantage of being bigger and better equipped.

"They could change the run cards and take over the fire delivery without having to hire anyone and buying new equipment," Hallas said. "The truth is they have no additional expense for bidding that fire district. We have."

What's even worse, Hallas said, is that South Pasadena will still have to run many of the fire calls even though it's no longer being paid. And, South Pasadena will be coming with fewer people. Not only that, she said, the response times will be longer because St. Petersburg's nearest station is farther away than South Pasadena's.

"I don't think it's fair," Hallas said.

Meyer, the Dunedin fire chief, agrees that having other departments bid on the contracts doesn't make sense even if it can legally be done. Parts of the unincorporated Dunedin area are scattered through the city like a patchwork quilt.

"I don't know how another fire engine could respond in the middle of my city," Meyer said. That would leave Dunedin answering the calls but not being paid. Meyer said he won't run free calls. If other departments joined in as the county pulled big chunks out of fire districts, the automatic aid system could fail and the county might have a repetition of the days when a fire department would save one house while watching the one next door burn.

Commissioner Neil Brickfield conceded that bidding out a contract does hurt some people and would not work in all situations.

"I think this current commission is looking at any and all possibilities that we can affect on our end. But we don't have responsibility for (everything)," Brickfield said. "We can't just go into a city and say hand it over. It doesn't work that way."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.