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Marathon emergency medical services budget talks go nowhere

LARGO — County commissioners and St. Petersburg council members spent more than nine hours wrangling and sniping at each other Monday, but ended up no closer to an agreement over how to pay for emergency medical services than they were when they began.

Pinellas commissioners still want the city to lop $7 million from its EMS budget. And City Council members say reducing their EMS budget to $5 million will endanger lives, increase response times and shift a countywide tax burden onto the shoulders of St. Petersburg taxpayers.

"We look forward to a proposal coming back to us," Pinellas County Commission chairwoman Susan Latvala said. "What will you do? What will you try?"

Jim Kennedy, chairman of the St. Petersburg council, said: "If the ultimatum does not change, the city will have no choice but to go back to court. We're not going to be able to accept devastating our system by taking $7 million out."

Kennedy added, "As you asked us for proposals, I would ask the County Commission for proposals other than taking $7 million out of our system."

Kennedy and Latvala agreed to meet again with city and county staff members to try ironing out a solution. And Mayor Bill Foster said he'd present the county with a pilot program to let firefighters take patients to hospitals.

The St. Petersburg council asked last summer to meet with Pinellas commissioners to discuss a proposal by County Administrator Bob LaSala that, among other things, would change the EMS funding formula for a system he says is facing bankruptcy.

Although the commission has not formally adopted LaSala's plan, members were firm that they want St. Petersburg to cut $7 million from its $12 million EMS budget.

St. Petersburg offered to absorb part of the costs of its pension and to have its firefighters transport patients from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. (They are currently taken to hospitals by Paramedics Plus, a private company that contracts with the county to transport under the name Sunstar.) St. Petersburg officials estimated the combination would save about $3 million.

The city also suggested raising the countywide EMS tax rate. The county has authority to raise the rate to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. That would supply enough money to make the system sustainable for 10 years, the city said.

Commissioners refused to consider this suggestion. They just raised the rate 46 percent to about $0.85 per $1,000 and said they will not raise it again.

The discussion caused one of the many spats of the meeting.

Kennedy pointed out that the commission had to raise taxes that much because it had dug into reserves the previous few years to make up a shortfall. Commissioners only raised the rate in the face of a projected bankruptcy of the system.

"I don't want to say planned bankruptcy," Kennedy said, but the commission's actions contributed to the current crisis.

Commissioner Ken Welch said the group tried to hold the line. "There was no planned suppression of the (tax) rate," he said.

The commission had its own suggestions, such as privatizing the system and turning it over to Paramedics Plus. It also suggested that St. Petersburg could be carved out of the system to form a special taxing district in which property owners would be assessed more for EMS than elsewhere in the county.

"That's not going to happen," Foster said.

If all else fails, he said, the city will go to court. If that fails, too, Foster said the city would leave the system.

"If we're such a huge problem that we're bankrupting the system, then let us go," Foster said.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Marathon emergency medical services budget talks go nowhere 11/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 3:14pm]
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