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Largo sets sights on Pinellas school district property for new fire station

As Belleair Bluffs residents decide whether they want to contract with Largo for fire service, Largo is eyeing a property owned by the Pinellas County School District for a new fire station to replace Belleair Bluffs' station as well as one of its own.

The Largo city staff plans to meet with staff from the school district Thursday to discuss the possibility of a station on about 2 acres of the school district's 30-acre property near Wilcox and Vonn Roads, said Jonathan Evans, assistant to Largo's city manager.

The inquiry is still in its initial stages.

Largo hasn't gotten an appraisal to assess the potential cost of the property, Evans said. And the school district doesn't know if a fire station would be feasible on the site, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of facilities and operations for Pinellas County Schools.

Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said the station, which also will replace Largo Fire Station 39, is still more than two years away. Station 39 is located north of Ulmerton Road, near 134th Avenue and 121st Street.

On Wednesday, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office mailed out more than 1,800 ballots to Belleair Bluffs residents for the Sept. 1 referendum. Residents will decide whether they want to eliminate their city's Fire Department and turn over control to Largo. The city requested that the election be conducted only by mail.

If Largo takes over fire service, Largo Fire Rescue will still operate out of the current Belleair Bluffs station for more than two years, Wallace said. The city has offered to hire 12 Belleair Bluffs firefighters, and eight have applied so far.

"For the near term, that station is not going away," Wallace said.

Largo plans to build a new station in 2011 and have it up and running late that year or in early 2012, he said.

Belleair Bluffs, a city of about 2,200, spans just under three-quarters of a mile. The city's fire station is located at 682 N Indian Rocks Road, about a half-mile north of West Bay Drive. Largo's proposed station is about 3 miles from Belleair Bluffs' current one.

"Not everybody can have a fire station across the street from their house," Wallace said. "In fact, many people don't want a fire station across the street from their house."

Belleair Bluffs Commissioner Suzy Sofer said residents are concerned about response times with a new station, as is she.

"Our response time is going to increase with a location away from the station we have," Sofer said.

The county standard for responding to emergency calls is within 7 1/2 minutes at least 90 percent of the time. With a new station, his department would still serve the district well within those standards, Wallace said.

"There's no doubt in my mind the city of Belleair Bluffs will be receiving very near the same response times they're getting now," he said.

Belleair Bluffs' fire budget is about $1.15 million.

Its Fire Department also serves the Town of Belleair and unincorporated areas of Harbor Hills, Harbor Bluffs and Oakdale Manor.

A "domino effect" began for Belleair Bluffs in April when Belleair decided to terminate its $500,000 contract for fire service and contract with Largo instead starting Oct. 1, Mayor Chris Arbutine said.

Pinellas County then said it would no longer give Belleair Bluffs $400,000 in EMS funding.

If the referendum fails, Arbutine expects the county to fund fire service for unincorporated areas in the coming budget year. But, he said, "we're going to have to pay about 30 percent more than we would if we contracted out with Largo." Largo would charge Belleair Bluffs about $244,000.

And costs to keep the Belleair Bluffs department will become astronomical, he said.

In fiscal year 2010-11 and beyond, Belleair Bluffs would be on the hook for more than $1 million, Arbutine said.

"Year 2 and on," Arbutine said, "we're going to pay 400 percent more to keep that department open."

FAST FACTS

Ballot language

Shall the City of Belleair Bluffs contract with a third party for the provision of primary fire services within the City?

Largo sets sights on Pinellas school district property for new fire station 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 5:31am]

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