LAND O'LAKES — Back in 2001, Pasco County began to expand its fire rescue services, merging with volunteer units, building new stations, investing in new equipment and adding more firefighters to staff the engines.
But with a looming countywide budget deficit of $35.7 million, officials now face the opposite task:
Figuring out how to pull back.
So far, the preliminary figures aren't reassuring. To reduce his proposed budget by nearly 17 percent, Chief Anthony Lopinto put 48 fire department positions — half of them filled — on the chopping block. Another 20 rescue workers could also lose their jobs as part of general fund reductions.
The potential upshot of losing jobs? Fewer firefighters working out of stations and riding engines to scenes.
But Lopinto said in an interview that frontline staff reductions are "a last resort."
"I don't want people at this point panicking about their job. I don't think this is a time the public needs to be concerned yet," said Lopinto. "We're going to clean house inside and make sure the emphasis and urgency is put on response. I can assure you that the manpower losses on engines will not be the first choice."
On average, each job — counting only salaries and benefits — adds up to about $60,000, said Lopinto.
But top officials are meeting every day, he said, to come up with savings other than job losses. One idea is to reassign administrative employees with firefighting backgrounds back to the field.
"We're working every day behind closed doors trying to come up with ideas that are outside the box," he said.
He's going to get some help doing that. On Tuesday, Pasco County Commissioners approved spending up to $42,790 on an intensive study of the emergency service department by the International City/County Management Association.
Commissioners also voted to add $6,000 for the consultant to look at whether the county should merge the fire rescue and sheriff's dispatch centers, currently located in the same building on Little Road.
The goal of the study is to identify savings that could translate into holding onto jobs, if not this upcoming year then the next one, said Lopinto.
Lopinto said he has no plans to close any stations. In fact, he also got commissioners' blessing on Tuesday to apply for $7.7 million in federal stimulus grant money to replace three aging fire stations and build another one on property already owned by the county. The construction won't require additional staff.
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Commissioners will hold workshops on the proposed budget — and tax rates — throughout the summer, adopting the final spending plan before October, the start of the next fiscal year.
Money to pay for fire rescue services comes from two different funds. Most of it comes from a special fire district property tax charged only to parcels in unincorporated Pasco County. A portion of the operations — for ambulance services — is covered by the general fund, which is supported by countywide property taxes.
With property values sinking, the county faces big deficits if it keeps its millage rates the same. Revenues for the fire fund would be around $23.3 million, down from the $29.7 million budgeted for this year.
If they do need to shrink the workforce, officials are considering a number of steps, including reducing from three to two the number of personnel required to ride an engine to a fire.
County emergency officials used to require only two firefighters per truck but had phased in a three-person requirement in recent years. The idea behind having three people is that one person drives while the other two are suited-up and ready to go when they arrive on scene.
Another "last resort" idea on the table is what Lopinto calls "rolling brownouts." That means if somebody calls in sick, that station would run short on staff that day as opposed to the department paying overtime for someone to fill in.
The national group that evaluates fire department performance for insurance companies, Insurance Services Office, has been wrapping up its latest study of Pasco County, which got its last rating back in 1995, said Lopinto. ISO looks at fire alarm and communications systems, water supply and a department's ability to respond to scenes with personnel and equipment.
It's unclear what impact any changes would have on its latest rating, due later this year.
Ralph Grant, the firefighters union president, said he's watching the budget closely.
"None of this is set in stone yet, so I'm not going to start criticizing," he said. "Chief Lopinto submitted the budget he was told to."
But he's worried about what might come down the pike, especially if it means job losses. By a couple of different industrywide standards, he said, Pasco County already falls short on the number of firefighters it should have for the number of residents.
"I understand being fiscally responsible," Grant said. "But how much does fiscally responsible border on, 'Hey, we're cutting it close here?' "
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.