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Candidate urges county not to cut Bayflite funding

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners are considering cutting voluntary funding to Bayflite to help avoid raising the property tax rate for countywide emergency medical services.

But state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, thinks that's a bad idea. She wrote county commissioners last week to urge them to continue funding Bayflite, which uses helicopters to take badly injured people to Bayfront Medical Center. She also urged the other members of the Pinellas legislative delegation to join her lobbying efforts on Bayflite's behalf.

However, Long did not mention in either of her letters that her son, Paul, is a Bayflite pilot.

Long said she has done nothing wrong and sees no conflict of interest. She has been "pretty friendly" with most of the Pinellas commissioners, she said, and, "yes, they certainly do know that Paul works for Air Methods."

Air Methods is the company that supplies Bayflite's pilots.

Besides, Long said, her son is a very capable person and does not need her influence to get or keep a job.

"That would be a little crazy," Long said. "He's a pretty accomplished guy."

Paul Long recently left the military. He served in Afghanistan and was nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes "heroism or extraordinary achievement" in flight, in 2008.

His mother was a Seminole City Council member from 2002 to 2006. She was elected to House District 51 in 2006 and re-elected in 2008. Long, 65, is running for re-election this year against Republican business owner Larry Ahern, 55, of St. Petersburg and tea party member Victoria A. Torres, 45, of Orlando.

District 51 runs along the western side of Pinellas and covers Seminole, South Pasadena and small portions of Largo, Pinellas Park and unincorporated Lealman.

By taking Bayflite's side, Long involved herself in what seems to be the most contentious portion of the countywide budget — EMS. County commissioners have said they do not want to raise taxes and ordered staff members to tighten the budget.

One item they looked at was Bayflite. The county gives $625,000 to the service.

However, the county staff discovered that Pinellas is the only bay area county to give Bayflite any money. Bayflite is entirely funded elsewhere by user fees and also gets fees from those it helps in Pinellas. Also, Bayflite no longer stations a helicopter in the county.

The conclusion, Assistant County Administrator James Dates said, was that the county could cut that funding, save money and not risk the loss of any service.

But Long said in her letter to commissioners that she feared cutting the funding would jeopardize service and lives.

"Please use this opportunity to demonstrate the County's commitment to protecting the lifesaving trauma services of Bayflite provided to our county, the Tampa Bay region, and the entire state of Florida," Long wrote on her House of Representatives letterhead.

Then, she urged fellow legislators to join her in urging commissioners to continue the funding by sending an e-mail titled: "Urgent! Let the County Commission know TODAY if you support Bayflite!"

The e-mail said: "Please read the attached letter I have sent to each of the county commissioners. Please share your own thoughts with them as well on this very critical issue concerning our constituents' trauma services! They vote this afternoon, so time is of the essence!"

(The commission did not vote on the issue. A vote will not come until September.)

The e-mail was copied to Sue Brody at Bayfront.org. Brody is the chief executive officer of Bayfront.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Candidate urges county not to cut Bayflite funding 07/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 4:02pm]
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