New plan to trim EMS funding in Pinellas County

The 10-year proposal, which affects 18 Pinellas fire agencies, could save $18 million.

County Administrator Bob LaSala created the proposal.
County Administrator Bob LaSala created the proposal.

County Administrator Bob LaSala says he has a plan that could save up to $18 million in Pinellas' emergency medical services system.

It's a 10-year plan LaSala says will not only save money but also maintain the quality of EMS service and fix inequities in the system.

"We think we have arrived at a thoughtful (approach that has) accomplished that," LaSala said Friday to the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times. "I think we've been extremely, extremely reasonable in this approach."

The proposal, which will go before the County Commission during a workshop today, is the latest of several proposals made over the past few years with the goal of holding down costs of the $113.3 million system.

LaSala's proposal focuses on the costs of the 18 fire departments that contract with the county to provide first-response service at a cost of about $40 million. Those expenses are funded by a countywide property tax that is currently about 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. Thus, a home valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay about $92 a year.

The proposal has several parts:

• Change the way the county determines how much money each fire department receives so Pinellas pays only for what it needs to meet the system's minimum requirements.

Currently, the county pays the fire department whatever the department says it needs. Under the proposed system, the county would establish a new base. Specifically, the county would stop paying for entire 24-hour shifts of certain firefighter/paramedics if the data indicated that much staffing was unnecessary. In other words, if the data indicated the county only needed a certain crew of firefighter/paramedics for 12 hours a day, that's all the county would pay for. If the department wanted to keep those firefighter/paramedics on duty for 24 hours, then it would have to pay the additional 12 hours from city or district funds.

•Freeze payments for three years.

•Cap the increases on payments starting in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Most departments would see no funding change under the proposal. Three — Palm Harbor, Seminole and Tarpon Springs — could see increases because the county believes more service is needed in those areas. Seminole's increase would come from increased service to the Redington beaches area, which that city serves.

Five departments — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Lealman — would lose money.

St. Petersburg stands to lose about $1.1 million annually if the base is reset as LaSala proposes. That accounts for about 46.7 percent of the overall $2.3 million that would be cut out of the system.

"We're trying to make it happen," Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "Hopefully, we can make the numbers work so we can be a good partner with the county."

St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse agreed the proposal was more palatable than past suggestions that saw the city taking bigger budget hits.

"We have something to talk about here," Nurse said. "This is a realistic number."

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said the $669,000 that would be lost the first year for his department would be a "softer landing" than past proposals. The reduced payment, he said, provides an incentive to hold down costs, particularly when it comes to negotiating salaries and pensions.

But Horne acknowledged that the proposal is not likely to be popular with all. And he conceded that, while it would maintain service at the county-mandated level that has firefighters getting to emergencies within 71/2 minutes 90 percent of the time, it could mean the county's average response time — currently 41/2 minutes — will go up.

Macho Liberti, former secretary-treasurer of the Largo Professional Firefighters, said that by increasing the time it takes to get to patients, the county is running the risk of having Pinellas' EMS system "go from one of the best to just sufficient or average." It's an attempt, he said, to shift costs to the cities and districts in order to maintain the current level of service.

"Any cut in funding could mean less units and personnel at the ready for any emergency that may arise, fire or EMS-related," Liberti said. "This is not a funding issue. It is a philosophical issue of what level of public safety services the county and cities want to provide and who will be on the hook to force citizens to pay for it — the county or the service providers."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.