Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Others might follow if St. Petersburg leaves Pinellas EMS system

St. Petersburg could have company if it exits Pinellas' emergency medical services system.

Officials from at least two other cities and one fire district are ready to discuss the possibility now that St. Petersburg has opened the door by threatening to leave if the county holds firm on a proposal to slash EMS budgets.

"All options are on the table. All of them. What the county is trying to do is a sin, and they should be ashamed of themselves," said Kathleen Litton, chairwoman of the Lealman Fire Commission. "Absolutely, all options are on the table."

St. Petersburg's position makes it easier for places like Lealman, Largo and Pinellas Park to have a discussion about leaving the countywide EMS system, say officials. None of them are big enough to go it alone, but the possibility of partnering with St. Petersburg and other departments opens the issue up to discussion, even a short one.

"I'm not averse to partnering with St. Pete," Pinellas Park council member Rick Butler said.

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala has proposed cutting about $2.3 million annually out of the EMS system. The cuts are focused on five of the county's busiest departments — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Lealman. He has also proposed cutting Seminole's budget.

In addition to those cuts, LaSala wants a three-year freeze on the budgets of all 18 fire departments that provide EMS service. After that, he would cap the percentage of increases. LaSala says his proposal would save an estimated $60 million over the next 10 years.

LaSala has said there will be no flexibility in the county's proposal. Yielding to one department means the county has to yield to others and the savings will be lost.

Thus far, LaSala seems to have held to that.

"I'm not averse to negotiating this at all but there's no negotiating on their part," Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said. "They have not been willing to negotiate. … I think that's why St. Pete is where they're at."

That's at a fork in the road. One possible destination is a courtroom. The other is a trip to ask the state Legislature's help in rewriting the state law that created the system and placed the county in charge of disbursing the money collected from a countywide EMS property tax.

The courthouse has the most appeal for officials as being the least drastic step.

"Hopefully, they're going to litigate so we can jump in there," Butler said. "My personal vote is to go ahead and join in litigation with it."

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he's not in favor of bolting the system as a solution to the latest wrangle over funding. But, he conceded, a lawsuit could be on the horizon.

"I don't know that I'm comfortable going to court to get this resolved," Cretekos said. "But it's an option that's out there, and we will be discussing it."

Even if the system survives this latest spat, some say it may be time to discuss doing something totally different, especially if it involves both fire and EMS because the two are so interconnected. Cretekos said he's willing to discuss changing the system as part of a discussion about a long-term solution.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @ALindbergTimes on Twitter.

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