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Challenges ahead for Pinellas County now without a top administrator

Bob LaSala

Bob LaSala

ST. PETERSBURG — Former Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala was so determined to cut costs in the county's emergency medical services system he refused to compromise, knowing the fight could end in court.

The veteran administrator put a new emphasis on Pinellas' social services safety net yet alienated the community providers he needed to make it work.

And, while he had a knack for budget cutting, he wreaked havoc on employee morale.

LaSala's ouster this week after five years at the helm leaves these and several other contentious issues looming. Commissioners have yet to name an interim administrator, much less a permanent replacement. What is clear is that the strategy for addressing the issues may change. Here is a look at a few of the more pressing ones:

Emergency medical services

The county has proposed sweeping changes to the way the emergency medical services system is funded to cut costs. The dispute has become so contentious that Largo leaders voted unanimously Tuesday to take the county to mediation to try work out differences. If not, a lawsuit could be on the horizon.

County commissioners are split on how to handle EMS in the wake of LaSala's departure.

Commissioners Ken Welch and Norm Roche want to change tactics. Roche believes that, with EMS and other issues, it's time to hold off on major changes.

LaSala's firing, he said, "clearly says we weren't happy with the direction we were going."

Welch said he welcomes the opportunity to sit down at the negotiating table with Largo and other cities or districts — a contrast to LaSala's noncompromising position. In the meantime, Welch said, they could hold down costs by spending some reserves in the EMS budget and taking advantage of savings offered by cities in the past. St. Petersburg, for example, offered a couple of years ago to absorb some firefighter-paramedic pension costs, but the county ignored the offer.

"Let's go back and take advantage of what our partners have offered us if they are still willing," Welch said. "The system is not broken."

Susan Latvala and Janet Long favor sticking with LaSala's plan.

"We have to stay strong on the EMS issue," Latvala said. "Bob and our staff came up with a very sound plan to make that department sustainable moving forward."

Long agreed, saying that if the cities and fire districts don't like the plan, "we can contract with someone else."

Social services/ health care

The county's relationship with community partners who provide health care and social services to the needy has suffered in recent months.

Last month, the director of the county's health and community services department announced she was stepping down after three years after she was asked to resign. LaSala and the commissioners saw Gwendolyn Warren as a change agent, but she turned into a divisive figure. Warren will retire in June and is no longer running day-to-day operations.

Decisions Warren made about which nonprofits to fund, and by how much, angered social service groups and hospitals.

"We have a lot of potholes to fill because some damage has been done in the community," Commissioner John Morroni said. "Bob was going to work on that to set the reset button and get to the people who felt neglected or abused. Now that falls on not only the new (administrator) coming in but also on us, the commissioners."

Hours after firing LaSala, the commission told staff to set a meeting with the board and partner organizations involved in the county's plan to open a health clinic for the homeless in Largo. The county has a $5 million grant for the building but is counting on other groups to defray an estimated $1.5 million in annual operating costs by providing staff and resources.

If that commitment is wavering, the county will need to reassess.

"We have to go back to the starting point, get our partners together, put our heads together and decide if this is the best way to provide" care, Latvala said.

The budget

LaSala was praised for his stewardship of the county through the Great Recession, but the downsizing was painful. With property values on the rebound, this year isn't expected to be slash-and-burn, but challenges are ahead.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who will submit his budget proposal on May 1, is expected to ask for funding to establish a salary step plan and to replace aging vehicles and technology infrastructure. Gualtieri said he and LaSala had a good working relationship and were set to meet next week.

"I respect the commissioners' decision, but the timing of it is tough because we're right on the cusp of setting this budget and he was the one I was in communication with," Gualtieri said. "I feel like we kind of have to go to the drawing board a little bit."

Morroni is worried that years of cuts in parks and code enforcement departments have affected the county's quality of life and tourist appeal. Commissioners also want to find $5.9 million for dental care for the needy.

"Everybody's looking for more money and we don't have more money, so that will be interesting whether Bob's here or not," Latvala said. "We need Bob's strengths, plus someone who has the communication skills and the personality to bring whoever it is we're tying to work with and not divide them."

Challenges ahead for Pinellas County now without a top administrator 04/16/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:23am]
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