The county has taken the first step to close one fire station and alter the boundaries of two fire districts, a cost-saving move that commissioners hint could be the vanguard of a wider consolidation of emergency services.
Pinellas commissioners unanimously voted to eliminate the county's emergency medical services funding to Fire Station 28, at 13501 94th Ave. N, in the unincorporated Oakhurst area.
The station is operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District. The funding decrease will begin Oct. 1, the start of the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Fire Station 31 at 13091 88th Ave. N, also in the unincorporated Oakhurst area, will respond to the emergency medical calls now answered by Station 28. Station 31, which is less than a mile from Station 28, is under control of the Seminole Fire District.
Commissioners will also ask the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation to contract the boundaries of the Suncoast Fire District by removing the area covered by Station 28. That area would be placed in Seminole's fire district.
The effect would be to save $1.2-million without a decrease in service, county records show.
The decision will have several benefits, Pinellas County officials say. The first eliminates overlapping service. With two stations so close together, much of the service is duplicated and can be made more efficient by consolidating the area.
The big reason to make the change is to save the estimated $427,152 the county pays Pinellas Suncoast for EMS service in the area.
The money will not have to go to Seminole because the added calls will not require any new hires or new equipment.
By pocketing that money, the county can reduce the estimated $14-million shortfall in EMS funding anticipated in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Also saving money would be residents in the Seminole Fire District, who would see their tax rate drop with the addition of about 2,500 parcels worth an estimated $417.5-million to the district.
Some of the property owners being moved into the Seminole district from Oakhurst would also save money because the low tax rate could mean they will pay less than the annual $190 flat fee Suncoast charges its residents. The fee is scheduled to increase to $260 in the 2010 fiscal year.
However, some taxpayers who will be moved from the Pinellas Suncoast District to the Seminole district will see a cost increase, although officials say that only a few property owners will incur the higher costs.
Some firefighters could conceivably lose their jobs, although commissioners said during the vote they intend to avoid that if at all possible.
County Commissioner Karen Seel was unsure if the deal is as good as it sounds.
"Some are going to gain. Some are going to lose on this proposal as far as citizens paying their fees," Seel said. "I'm still not convinced that it's fair to Pinellas Suncoast, especially if they can provide it at a lesser fee. I think we're propping up Seminole by doing this. I know we need to do some consolidation. I'm just not sure this is entirely fair to Pinellas Suncoast."
Other commissioners were more interested in making sure residents affected by the change know what's going on.
"I'm real concerned about the communication that we're having with the community," Commissioner John Morroni said.
"We heard from a lady from Seminole and she heard that her fire taxes were going to go up $114 and (she) starts talking to her neighbors and that just starts the whole ball rolling and it picks up steam and misinformation once it's out there and it's so hard to roll it back in," he said. "Then I see that we double-checked for her and found out … it's not true that she's getting an increase; she's getting a decrease."
Morroni added, "We have to get to these folks and explain to them what's going on, what this consolidation is all about. Even (interim county administrator Fred) Marquis said at our last meeting, 'This is the easy one. All the rest of them are going to be really difficult.' "
"This is going to take us working with our legislators … also with the public. What's really important to me is that they understand what we are doing instead of just doing it and then they go, 'Well, you didn't ask me or you didn't tell us about it.' "
Marquis said he envisions holding public information sessions to let property owners know what is happening and why.