EMS property taxes could widely vary under county proposal

County commissioners have been firm about one thing: They will not increase the countywide property tax that pays for emergency medical services.

But they're poised to adopt a measure that would allow the county to raise EMS taxes for some property owners and cut them for others. Most of the increases — some as much as 130.9 percent — would likely be in south Pinellas. The decreases — some as much as 65.6 percent — would likely be on the beaches and in North Pinellas.

The proposal itself, which commissioners are scheduled to adopt at Tuesday's meeting, has no increases. Instead, it divides the county into 22 EMS subdistricts. Commissioners could use the EMS budgets and the property values in those subdistricts to determine individual tax rates rather than impose one countywide rate as they do now.

Also on Tuesday's agenda is a proposal to renew the contract with Paramedics Plus, the for-profit, Texas-based company that provides ambulance service under the county name Sunstar.

Paramedics Plus has offered two options to the commission:

• The first, which County Administrator Bob LaSala recommends, is to renew the contract for three years. In exchange, Paramedics Plus will reduce its basic monthly charge from $2.33 million to $2.12 million starting this year. This would be a $10 million savings to the county over the next four years. Paramedics Plus would also buy 70 new electrocardiogram monitors by Oct. 1.

• The other is to renew the contract for two years with a possible one-year extension. The county and Paramedics Plus could simultaneously run six-month pilot projects. One project would allow firefighter-paramedics to take patients to the hospital. The other pilot would have Paramedics Plus provide both first response medical service as well as ambulance transport.

LaSala says the pilot projects would be difficult to implement and cost the county more money.

EMS has been an increasingly emotional issue for the past few months as the county has sought ways to rein in costs that, LaSala says, could bankrupt the system. The commission has ruled out an increase in the EMS property tax. And LaSala has proposed changing the funding formula for paying the countywide property tax to the 18 fire districts that provide EMS first responder service. The formula, he says, will equalize what each of the districts gets from the county.

Some city officials, fire chiefs and firefighters say LaSala's proposal will reduce the available staffing and emergency vehicles available. That, they say, will decrease the level of service Pinellas residents currently receive and increase the length of time the sick and injured must wait for help.

They also say the variations in budgets and costs are justified by differences in call volume and other issues. Maintaining those budgets after the cuts, they say, will simply shift a countywide tax burden onto the shoulders of local taxpayers.

LaSala has now proposed the creation of 22 EMS subdistricts, which commissioners could then use to set individual EMS taxes. The 18 fire districts would continue to provide EMS service in all 22 districts, but otherwise, it is unclear exactly how the subdistrict plan would work. LaSala said details would be determined if the commission decided to use the subdistrict tool.

One method of determining the amount of taxes would be for the commission to set an EMS tax that would be levied equally across the county as now. The tax would be based on the countywide property values and the amount of money county officials think each subdistrict should pay its employees. If a subdistrict wanted a bigger budget, the county could figure that extra based on the property values in that area then add it to the countywide tax.

Another method would be simply to take each district individually and have its residents pay the amount of tax necessary to fund the budget in their own area.

LaSala said there are other possibilities in determining the tax. The county, he said, has run no numbers to see the possible effects on property owners.

But a St. Petersburg Times analysis found widely diverging tax rates and potentially devastating effects on some of the poorest people in the county and on the busiest fire stations.

Using available county data, the Times calculated the possible tax rates if the subdistrict plan been in effect for the current fiscal year and each subdistrict had to pay for its entire EMS budget out of local taxes. This was done by dividing the current EMS budget in each fire district by the Pinellas County Property Appraisers' estimate of the value of property. Some property values were unavailable and some of the subdistrict have no current budget because EMS service is provided by one of the 18 fire districts.

Among the findings:

• Taxpayers in most of south Pinellas would see their taxes go up. Lealman taxpayers, some of the county's poorest, would likely suffer the biggest hit with a tax hike that could be as much as 130.9 percent over the current rate. South Pasadena's taxpayers could see their EMS taxes jump by about 92.9 percent. Pinellas Park could see its rates increase go up to an estimated 32.2 percent. And St. Petersburg's property owners could be paying 31.3 percent more in EMS taxes than they are now. Largo's rates could also increase a bit — about 1.5 percent.

• Such a change would take Lealman's tax rate from $0.8506 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $1.9641 per $1,000 of taxable value. South Pasadena could see its tax rate go from $0.8506 per $1,000 of taxable property value to about $1.641 per $1,000 of taxable value. Both of those rates would exceed the cap of $1.5000 set by state law.

• North county and beach districts — many with smaller departments, higher property values and fewer calls for service than most south county departments — would see decreases. The biggest would likely be in Treasure Island, which could see a 65.6 percent drop from $0.8506 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $0.2930 per $1,000 of taxable value.

Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Robert Polk, who is head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, agreed that, if districts are going to be charged different rates for EMS service, there seems to be no need for a countywide EMS system.

"It kind of goes against the essence of the founding principles of (countywide) EMS, everybody gets equal service for equal cost," Polk said. In addition, the proposal will further politicize the system. "It's going to pit community against community, property owner against property owner … It further drives the wedge from one community to another."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

EMS property taxes could widely vary under county proposal 12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 3:31am]

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