Saturday, November 18, 2017
News Roundup

For the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District, unknowns abound as the chief says goodbye

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INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Now is a turning point for the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District.

District officials are on the brink of settling a lawsuit over millions of dollars in emergency medical services funding.

They're also fighting a lawsuit that alleges the district used "ambiguous, deceptive and misleading" ballot language to convince voters to approve a new property tax.

On still another front, they're considering buying land for a new fire station and leasing a new ladder truck.

And one more thing: The chief who set it all in motion has resigned to take a new job .

Salvatore D'Angelo, who took over the district in October 2014, is joining the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District as executive director, a job he said will make better use of the doctorate in public administration he earned last year. His last day is Aug. 4.

D'Angelo has been an aggressive leader, pursuing several funding sources to stabilize the district's finances through lawsuits that have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and a property tax referendum that's in legal limbo.

He said during an interview last month he's proud of the momentum he's started after years of stagnant leadership in the district, which covers about 16,500 residents in Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore and the unincorporated Oakhurst area.

"Getting the ball rolling for someone else is a positive thing," he said.

District commissioners pointed to John Mortellite, currently the assistant chief of emergency operations, as the likely interim chief. Mortellite said last week he's not planning to put his name in for the permanent position. Commissioners posted the job and hope to have it filled within the next couple months.

It will be a tall order for whoever comes in next to tackle the payoff — or the fallout — of D'Angelo's decisions. Two of the biggest unknowns as his tenure winds down are the lawsuits over funding and ballot language.

D'Angelo sued Pinellas County over $5.2 million in EMS funding he feels has been shortchanged from the district. On this front, the end is near: Fire district commissioners are meeting Tuesday to vote on a proposed settlement after months of mediation. The meeting is open to the public and starts at 10 a.m. at Fire Station 28, 13501 94th Ave.

The other dispute stems from a property tax approved by voters in the November election. D'Angelo led the charge for the new revenue source, which would be charged to district property owners at a first-year rate of 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value, on top of a flat fee of $260 for homeowners.

He said the district needs a new revenue source that is equitable for residents and would fund what he said are long-overdue upgrades to district facilities and equipment. Among them: a new ladder truck for Fire Station 28 and a permanent location for Fire Station 26, now housed in temporary quarters behind Indian Shores Town Hall.

District commissioners are in discussions over whether to buy a piece of land at the southern tip of the district as a site for a new station.

But the validity of the referendum — and the roughly $1.5 million it's expected to funnel into the district coffers in the first year — is in dispute. Edward Hoofnagle, a district resident and Indian Rocks Beach commissioner, filed a lawsuit in August challenging the ballot language.

It has become an expensive legal battle on top of the money the district paid to formulate and advertise the question. Expenses have totaled about $143,000, according to the latest available records from March 31.

Literature educating voters about the referendum warned that if they didn't approve the tax, "services would be reduced beginning in 2017. At least one station will close. Personnel will be cut. Equipment would get older, leading to increased maintenance costs and service outages."

Whether those warnings will come to fruition remains to be seen. District officials are forging ahead as if they will receive the new revenue.

"We can't continue to operate on just a flat fee for service," Commission Chairman Joe Bruni said. "I know there's taxpayers that don't believe that. They think those are just idle threats. Those are absolutely not idle threats. Those are fact."

The district's other four commissioners did not respond to requests for comment.

But some of their constituents had their own thoughts on the future. During D'Angelo's tenure, a small but dedicated group of residents started attending every commission meeting, often with harsh criticism and pointed questions for district leadership. Some say D'Angelo is ducking out before his initiatives have gotten off the ground, leaving taxpayers on the hook if his bets turn sour.

"He's caused a lot of problems," said long-time Indian Rocks Beach resident Kelly Cisarik, 52, who regularly attends meetings and sends email updates to about 50 district residents. "And he's leaving the rest of us here in the district to pick up the pieces."

Nancy Izor-Obarski, a 20-year Indian Rocks Beach resident, said she had high hopes for D'Angelo, based on his experience, that he could get the district on track. But that optimism dried up as she felt he listened more to lawyers than residents.

Bruni, who is also division chief of safety and training for St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue, said he feels a similar concern for the future of the district. But, but unlike the residents, he says D'Angelo has lived up to his potential, accomplishing what no other chief could, especially regarding the tax referendum.

"I still would be singing his praises, even if Hoofnagle won," Bruni said. "He has found a way to make this fire district financially solvent."

He said he appreciated D'Angelo's work so much, he already knows what he's looking for in the next chief: "The exact same thing we have in place right now."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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