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EMS debate boiling over in Pinellas Park, Lealman

Festering resentment between Pinellas Park and Lealman that has simmered below the surface for years seems to be boiling over at long last.

The cause: The Lealman Fire District's tactics in a debate over the elimination of a paramedic position and the relocation of another from one of its fire stations to one in Kenneth City run by Pinellas Park. So far, Lealman is winning. The County Commission voted 4-3 last week to let Lealman keep its paramedic positions.

It wasn't the loss of the vote — which isn't final — that irked Pinellas Park officials, but the way it came about, they say.

"What dirty tactics. On all fronts," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said recently. "If I was involved in tactics like this, I'd be working somewhere else. No one would put up with it."

Among the "awful nasty" tactics Pinellas Park claims Lealman has used: fearmongering, misrepresenting and twisting facts, revising history and indulging in hypocrisy.

"Can you imagine another (taxing entity) doing something like this? Holy cow," Gustafson said.

City spokesman Tim Caddell described the Lealman style as "kind of bullying."

Lealman officials deny the charges.

"I don't believe we've put any erroneous information out there," said Capt. Jim Millican, Lealman's spokesman. "We did not criticize the city of Pinellas Park in any way shape or form … not from this fire district. … We were not criticizing anybody. … We just felt we had valid points."

The hard feelings between Pinellas Park and Lealman go back years and speak to the entanglement of annexation with fire service.

For much of that time, Pinellas Park has seen itself as the good neighbor that has come to the rescue and been kicked in the teeth for its efforts. When Lealman canceled its fire contract with Kenneth City because the town had annexed into the fire district, Pinellas Park saw itself as coming to help a neighboring town and took over Kenneth City's fire service.

Then, Pinellas Park asked the county for a paramedic position for the Kenneth City station. The county staff suggested eliminating one position from Lealman Station 19 and moving another from there to Kenneth City. The savings to the county would be about $450,000 and service would not be affected, the staff said.

But that heated up the battle. Soon, the story had changed. Kenneth City found itself accused of canceling the contract.

"I am a little bit over them saying we canceled the contract,'' Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said. "That is an untruth."

Pinellas Park found itself accused of asking the county to eliminate the Station 19 paramedic position and move the other to Kenneth City. Then Pinellas Park found itself accused of losing money on the contract with Kenneth City — when it actually found a way to get some money for an engine and crew it already had and to get better service to the southern part of its city.

It's all frustrating, but not surprising, Gustafson said.

"We have a lot of experience with the way they play and it's not nice," he said. But "how do you combat tactics like that?"

Pinellas Park, he said, chose the high road and stayed mostly silent during the fracas except to explain the funding situation with the Kenneth City station.

Until last week, that is. That's when county Commissioner Karen Seel said during a discussion of the proposed move: "I don't think it's right for us to fund Pinellas Park."

Pinellas Park officials had no problem pinning the blame for that misconception on Lealman, which has heavily lobbied all the commissioners. Caddell, the Pinellas Park spokesman, was at the meeting and was infuriated.

He chastised Seel: "This has nothing to do with bailing Pinellas Park out."

Whatever the final outcome over the paramedic position, Gustafson said Lealman is playing a dangerous game.

"This kind of dirty tactics ... how do they think it's going to be perceived when they have to work with the community they're attacking?" he asked.

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

EMS debate boiling over in Pinellas Park, Lealman 08/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 7:01pm]

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