County commissioners are wondering why they should raise the tax rate to give raises to emergency medical services workers when county employees are facing layoffs and continued salary freezes.
They sent staff members back to negotiate with the 18 cities and fire districts that contract with Pinellas County to provide EMS services.
The 18 have asked for an overall 5 percent increase in funding for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Much of that $1.9 million comes from raises and increased benefits. That increase contributes to an estimated $14 million shortfall in EMS for the coming fiscal year that Pinellas officials say can be solved by raising the countywide EMS property tax.
But the prospect of doing that to pay for salary hikes raised eyebrows among county commissioners at a budget workshop Tuesday as they wondered why the paramedics were getting raises in tough economic times.
"As we look at our employees, they've been flat for a couple of years now," Commissioner Ken Welch said.
Welch was referring to salary freezes for county employees who have not been laid off.
"I still have a problem accepting these increases compared to the economic realities," he said.
The cost of countywide EMS has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as money has gotten tighter. Concerns have centered not simply on the overall $37 million paid to the 18 districts for the paramedics, but also on the wide disparity of costs among the districts themselves.
On the high end, county taxpayers give St. Petersburg $541,080 a year for a paramedic position. On the low end, the county taxpayers send St. Pete Beach $369,564 a year for a paramedic position. The countywide average is $438,712. A paramedic position consists of enough personnel and staffing to fill one seat on a truck 24/7.
Theoretically, all Pinellas paramedics are the same, so the differences are not a matter of training. And it's not because one works for a busy department and the other doesn't — the busier departments get more positions.
It's mostly a matter of personnel costs — salaries, health insurance, pensions and other benefits. The county estimates that, overall, about 80 percent of costs can be traced to personnel.
But which personnel costs are the biggest culprits in increases and variations among agencies differs depending on what you're looking at.
Lealman, for example, tops the list for average salaries of paramedics funded by the county. But St. Petersburg tops the list for benefits and overall package, although much of that stems from an old pension issue. Remove St. Petersburg and look only at current packages and Palm Harbor tops the list, according to county records. Madeira Beach is at the bottom of all lists.
Many reasons account for the wide differences. Some departments have more older paramedics, who get higher pay. Others have unions that are better at bargaining.
But a great part of the reason lies with the state law that set up the Pinellas EMS system. That mandates the county negotiate each contract separately, Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer said, so differences got locked in early. Over the years, there was a cumulative effect that resulted in a lopsided funding picture.
"Should it all be the same in theory? Yes, it should," Geer said. "But when dealing with state mandates and realities, naturally, it's going to get skewed. … It may not be an ideal situation."
Added to that mix are state, local and court mandates that say the county is required to pay the "reasonable and customary" costs of the 10 cities that had EMS services when the current system went into effect in the 1980s.
The county treated that as paying all costs, no questions asked, and extended it to the other districts in an effort to be evenhanded. That seemed to be no problem as long as tax money was flowing. Then Amendment 1 was voted in, the real estate market crashed, and tough economic times set in.
Now, county commissioners are questioning that generosity and asking if they truly have to pay everything that's submitted to them without scrutiny. Commission chairwoman Karen Seel, for example, asked Tuesday if a cap could be set.
"It's like getting backed into a corner," Seel said. "It's like, 'Here you go. You guys go figure out how to print the money.' "
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala responded: "You could say that you're only going to fund X number of dollars and wait to see what the cities do."
That, he said, might be to file a lawsuit to force the county to pay all EMS costs.
Commissioners stopped short of that, saying they wanted to send a message to the cities and districts that they don't want to invade reserves and they don't want to raise taxes.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, (727) 893-8450 or twitter.com/alindbergtimes.