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Pinellas commission backs off EMS tax increase, but digs into reserves

CLEARWATER — County commissioners have backed off a massive increase in the tax rate for emergency medical services for the coming fiscal year.

But holding the line on the tax rate does not mean they held down spending. Instead, they chose to dig into savings rather than make all the spending cuts that the county staff recommended.

Pinellas commissioners gave tentative approval Tuesday to retaining the current EMS tax rate of about $5.83 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable real property value. For a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption, the EMS taxes will be about $58.30 for the 2010-11 fiscal year, the same as the current year.

That will generate about $31.6 million in taxes, and the commission will use about $9.6 million in reserves to balance the overall $41.2 million EMS budget. That will leave about $10.1 million in reserves for emergencies.

Final approval of the budget is scheduled for Sept. 21.

The decision to hold the line came after debate during the past months over increased fees and proposed cuts to EMS services. The commission raised ambulance fees, retrieved unspent EMS money from fire districts and axed a voluntary $625,000 payment to Bayflite, which is funded by user fees.

But commissioners locked in debate over a proposal to eliminate a paramedic position at Lealman Fire Station 19, 6994 46th Ave. N, and moving another from there to Fire Station 16, a mile away in Kenneth City at 4600 58th St. N. Staff members estimated the savings to countywide taxpayers at about $451,000 with no loss of service.

The Lealman district fought the move and recruited residents in the Five Towns area to argue to the commission that the change would endanger lives. Pinellas Park, which runs the Kenneth City station, and the county presented the commission with data indicating that was not so, but commissioners said they were confused by contradictory data.

By a 4-3 vote, they decided not to make the move even though St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield warned them that it appeared they were playing favorites by allowing an unincorporated area to retain a position when it makes economic sense to move it. Cities, he said, made such sacrifices last year, and considering the economic climate, will be asked to give up more in the future. The cities and other districts, he said, must be sure everyone will be treated equally.

"This is a much bigger decision than funding," Bonfield said. "You're going to lose some of the cooperation you've had so far."

Commissioner Susan Latvala said Bonfield had a point.

"I am very concerned if we make this decision … that we are opening up a hole that we will never be able to fill and that next year will be more difficult," she said. "It's a dangerous road to go down based on the severity of the situation we have in front of us."

But Nancy Bostock and Ken Welch dismissed that concern.

Welch said, "I don't think our progress moving forward hinges on this one rescue unit."

• • •

The EMS decision came as the commission gave its initial nod to a $1.6 billion budget for 2011. With little comment, the board turned back requests for new park fees and money for affordable housing during its first public hearing on the budget. About 60 people attended.

Members of Faith and Action for Strength Together, a group of religious congregations, pleaded for the board to stop a reduction of sales tax revenue for affordable housing. The county had planned to set aside $30 million for a housing land trust from the Penny for Pinellas tax. But the recession hammered tax collections, and the commission has given the nod to cutting the housing funding in half.

Commissioners questioned why the county was raising a vehicle replacement reserve fund from $3.6 million to $7.6 million when there's a freeze on vehicle purchases — prompted by a report Tuesday in the St. Petersburg Times. Threatened with cuts, County Administrator Bob LaSala promised to report back with details on the reasoning within the next few weeks.

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed. Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas commission backs off EMS tax increase, but digs into reserves 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 11:38pm]
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