County commissioners unanimously approved a three-year deal with St. Petersburg on the funding of emergency medical services.
While Tuesday's deal at least temporarily quiets the battles with that city over EMS funding, it leaves unresolved money issues with the other 17 cities and fire districts that provide first-response EMS.
"This one down, 17 to go," Pinellas commissioner Norm Roche said. "What's your confidence level carrying this on to the other 17?"
Bruce Moeller, who oversees the county's public safety department, said staff members forwarded a proposal based on the St. Petersburg deal to the other districts. A meeting is scheduled with them Thursday morning, he said, to try to resolve differences.
It's unclear if the county is close to accomplishing this with any of the others. Two of them — Largo and Pinellas Park — have begun conflict resolution proceedings over EMS funding issues. They have been joined in that action — required by state law before governments can sue one another — by several other cities and independent fire districts.
Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Bert Polk, head of the county Fire Chiefs Association, said most of the departments would accept the same deal as St. Petersburg. The problem, he said, is the county and departments have different interpretations of that agreement.
Under the agreement, St. Petersburg will receive about $11.8 million to provide first-response medical service in the 2014-15 fiscal year. That's about $708,988, or about 5.7 percent, less than the $12.5 million the city is getting this year. The city is projected for an increase of about $997,460 — about 8.4 percent — for the 2015-16 fiscal year and a second increase of about $784,300 — about 6.1 percent — for 2016-17.
The contract includes a clause that would allow St. Petersburg to ask for more money the final two years, should those projections not prove enough to cover the costs of providing service.
The contract has two one-year renewals after the initial three years.
The agreement also allows St. Petersburg to maintain a reserve fund of between $500,000 and $1 million. The fund has about $1.75 million now.
The problem is generally twofold, Polk said. The county maintains that St. Petersburg took a 5.7 percent cut this year and wants the other departments to do the same. The other districts say St. Petersburg took no cut but submitted a lower budget because its costs were actually lower, prompted by lowered personnel costs from retirements and other savings. In short, they say, St. Petersburg submitted a budget for what it needed and got what it needed.
Polk said the others did the same by submitting budgets for what is needed and it would be unfair to force cuts on them when St. Petersburg had no cuts.
The reserve fund is "one huge bone of contention," Largo fire Chief Shelby Willis said. Years ago, many of the departments built up reserve funds from unspent EMS money. Those funds were generally used to buy big-ticket items such as rescue trucks. But a couple of years ago, the county decided to disallow those reserve funds and took them back from departments that had them. Apparently, St. Petersburg never returned those funds.
Polk said it is unclear why St. Petersburg was allowed to keep that money then and is still allowed to do so now. It's particularly irksome, he said, when the county has repeatedly said all 18 districts need to be treated the same.
"There never has been equity and equality (yet) they're now trying to espouse the virtues of it," Polk said. "It's quite ridiculous. … I would just think that county staff would have more answers to the questions we're asking."
Staff writer Diane Steinle contributed to this report. Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes on Twitter.