Every property owner pays the same tax rate to the county for emergency medical services, but when the money is divvied up, some see a massive return on their dollar while others get back a pittance.
At one end of the scale, taxpayers in the area covered by South Pasadena contribute $297,722 in taxes to the EMS system. But the county pays South Pasadena 225 percent of that — $670,060 — to provide EMS services.
At the other end is Pinellas Suncoast. Pinellas Suncoast's property owners, most of whom live in tax-rich beach communities, pay about $2.09 million into the EMS system. But the county returns only about 26 percent of that — $545,990 — to Pinellas Suncoast for EMS.
Those aren't the only disparities. Lealman taxpayers get back a bit more than double what they pay into the system. St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and Largo are also given considerably more than their taxpayers contribute.
Treasure Island's taxpayers see less than half what they pay into the system. East Lake, Oldsmar and Madeira Beach also pay a lot that's sent elsewhere in the countywide system.
"I didn't know those exact numbers, but I think it's been fairly widespread understanding that certain agencies have been called contributors … to essentially fund" those who can't fund their own operations, Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Robert Polk said. "I think there are some equity questions that exist in numerous places."
Some disparity is to be expected, St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said. St. Pete Beach's taxpayers get back about 90.7 percent of what they pay into the system each year.
The system is designed so that those who have more contribute to those whose needs are great, but the disparities in EMS funding are greater than they should be, Bonfield said. That's the fault of the county, which has basically just handed out EMS money without question, he said. That has given communities little incentive to cut costs and operate efficiently while penalizing those that do.
"You're almost paying for that disparity to occur," Bonfield said. "That does rub you the wrong way."
Pinellas Park taxpayers get back $936,588 more each year than the $1.9 million they pay into the system. That city's fire chief, Doug Lewis, said the discrepancies are to be expected. Busy districts with poor residents need more services, so they cost more.
The discrepancies are no surprise to Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, who said that, while he was aware that there were so-called donor and recipient districts, the wide disparity surprised him.
But don't look for any short-term relief. LaSala has recommended that the County Commission continue funding the system as usual for the coming fiscal year. That includes raiding reserves to cover an estimated $16 million shortfall.
That's to give LaSala time to shop a proposed permanent funding change around the county. If the commission adopts the proposal this year, the new system could be adopted for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
The proposal would have the county fund one paramedic seat on 74 fire engines. The payment would be based on the countywide average of salaries and expenses for paramedics from all 18 districts. The estimated savings would be from $12 million to about $16 million a year for first responder EMS services.
The proposal is, in part, an effort to address issues of disparity.
"Fairness is lacking and this is something we need to resolve," Mic Gunderson told county commissioners last month. Gunderson and his Integral Performance Solutions were hired in late 2009 to study the county's EMS system and suggest improvements.
Gunderson's proposed funding change is a way "to preserve the level of service and to make sure the funding process is fair," he said.
Bonfield agrees the proposal is "certainly a step in the right direction."
"In the sense that it reimburses each paramedic seat equally, I don't think it can be any more fair than that," Bonfield said. "The concept of paying average salary is fair (and) incentivizes cities to manage costs where it currently doesn't exist."
It's unlikely to solve the issue of disparity between donor and recipient districts, but the proposal could even things out a bit, Bonfield said.
"I'm sure we will still get less back than what we pay," he said.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.
|District||Amount of taxes paid||Amount received||Difference||% back|
|St. Pete Beach||1,215,032||1,101,580||-113,452||90.7|
|*Includes both city and unincorporated area that the district contracts with the county to cover
**Includes unincorporated Largo and Belleair Bluffs areas, city of Belleair Bluffs, town of Belleair, portion of unincorporated High Point
***Includes Kenneth City and Tierra Verde
****Includes unincorporated Pinellas Park area and portions of unincorporated High Point area
Sources: Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Interim Report of Real Property Valuation by Taxing Authority