Faced with declining revenues, governing bodies across Pinellas are looking for ways to slash spending — except when it comes to asking for their share of the countywide emergency medical services taxes.
Thirteen of the 20 proposals are asking for budget increases; four of those are of 10 percent or more. Only five requests are for less than the departments received for the current tax year.
If county commissioners grant all the requests, Pinellas' overall EMS expenditures would be about 5 percent more than they are now.
"Really? Wow," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said when told of the amounts cities and fire districts want. "Obviously, we have continuing revenue issues in terms of EMS."
The first question to answer is "what, in this climate, is driving the requests for those increases?" Welch said.
In some cases, the circumstances have changed. That's why Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace is asking for a 33.95 percent increase in EMS for the service his department provides for Belleair Bluffs. Largo and Belleair Bluffs were negotiating last year during the EMS budget process. The $378,188 that Largo asked for was based on "theoretical personnel costs." The proposal for the 2010-11 fiscal year is based on actual EMS costs, Wallace said.
"We way underestimated our costs at the Belleair Bluffs fire station," Wallace said.
Aside from individual issues like that, some common culprits arise when talking with fire chiefs who have asked for the biggest increases. Among those are the rising costs of benefits, especially health care and pension contributions.
Pinellas Park, which is asking for a 14.36 percent increase over the current budget, is facing an overall 8 percent increase in pension costs and about 13 percent for increases in health insurance costs, Chief Doug Lewis said.
Salaries are another issue.
Many of the county's 18 cities and fire districts are negotiating raises with unions. While most want to hold raises to zero, it is unclear whether that will happen. So the proposed budget includes raises that might never happen.
Largo, which wants an 11.69 percent increase in its budget, is at an impasse and is waiting for a hearing that might help determine what raises, if any, that city's firefighters and paramedics will receive, Wallace said. The city wants to eliminate both step and merit increases, he said. If the city wins, the budget will be significantly less than what has been requested.
Another common issue is the process itself. Fire chiefs say the county wants the budget requests far in advance of the time they have actual data on costs. Making matters worse are rules that cap budget and tax-rate requests once they are made.
"We can always reduce our request. We can't increase it," Wallace said.
But when it comes time to submit budget requests to city councils and fire commissions for the fire side of things, the chiefs generally have more accurate information. The county gets high estimates and the cities and fire districts get lower, more accurate estimates.
That's part of what is behind the 10.72 percent EMS increase Safety Harbor has asked for.
"We are in the beginning stages of our city budget and are still working on calculating exact numbers," Safety Harbor fire Chief Joe Accetta said. "With a city budget not finalized we had to submit an estimated budget with projected costs."
Wallace added, "It's just a fiscal mismatch between the county's budgeting process and the cities' (process)."
The chiefs agree that it's unlikely the departments will get what they asked for. Last year, for example, negotiations resulted in a countywide 5.8 percent decrease from the amount of money requested to what was actually granted.
Dunedin received 16.7 percent less than it requested, but that was still a 27.7 percent increase over the previous year. And Lealman got 8.7 percent less than it requested but 19 percent more than the year before.
The real cuts could come after Tuesday, when county commissioners are scheduled to get their first real look at the budget requests. But county officials have already started cutting. St. Petersburg had asked for a 24.09 percent increase but, after negotiations, that has been cut to a request for a 5.38 percent increase.
"We budgeted like we normally budgeted and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't do that,' " St. Petersburg fire Chief Jim Large said.
The larger request was based on a higher number of paramedics than the county wanted to pay for. The county had paid for those up until last year but shifted them to St. Petersburg, which took money out of reserves to pay for them.
Large said he has the impression that the county is waiting for the results of a study of the EMS system before it decides whether to make those or other adjustments permanent. Large said he hopes those changes are not permanent because the city can't afford the funding.
"It can't be permanent," he said.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450 or twitter.com/alindbergtimes.