For almost 20 years, Pinellas County has asked few questions when handing out millions of dollars in tax money to cities and fire districts to provide emergency medical services.
Based on a St. Petersburg Times analysis, perhaps a few more questions should have been asked because it appears accountability has been lacking when it comes to tracking those dollars. The Times compared the salaries the cities and districts told the county their paramedics were making with city records showing what those same paramedics actually make. Among the findings:
• For the most part, the county hasn't audited so it really has little idea if paramedics are making exactly what the departments say they're earning.
• Even had the county tried to follow up, six departments didn't provide enough information to easily track the salaries of individual paramedics.
• About half the county's 18 districts seem to be charging the county more — sometimes substantially more — than the paramedics are actually making, according to the departments' own records.
That's not to say all departments don't add up. Compare East Lake's request to the county, for instance, with the department's records and the salaries are a precise match.
Another issue: The records also show that departments generally tend to push their highest-paid paramedics onto the county payroll despite an ordinance that requires more parity in splitting employees between the county and local agency.
Pinellas County began distributing property taxes in 1981 to pay for countywide EMS. Since then, the method of distribution has varied, but the county never asked if the figures presented to it were accurate.
Last year, the county passed new rules designed to get a better handle on the way the money is being spent by making the departments itemize salaries and other expenses. County EMS officials devised a new form that made it easy to ask up front about accurate numbers, but did not do so. Officials only made sure employees with the right title — paramedics, EMS coordinator, for example — were included.
"We don't" vouch for the accuracy of the dollar amounts, said Craig Hare, the county's EMS division manager. "It's based on the honesty of their budgets."
Although the county gave instructions in filling out the form, not all departments grasped the idea of making it easy for the county, or taxpayers, to check up on them: Clearwater, Dunedin, Largo and Palm Harbor provided the county with employee identification numbers that could not be cross-referenced with city lists. Pinellas Park provided no identifying numbers to the county. Lealman assigned the same number to all 16 of its county-funded paramedics.
"It's my understanding (the county) doesn't care who's in (the seat) as long as someone's in it," said Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham, who added that he knows which are the county-paid employees.
Some who did supply identification numbers appeared to have asked the county for more money than they were actually paying their paramedics.
St. Petersburg, the largest department in the county, received $11.9 million in EMS funding from the county for the 2009-10 fiscal year. About $5.1 million of that was regular salaries for paramedics.
But compare that to what city records show those employees actually make and the number is about $106,000 less.
City officials say there are a number of reasons for that. Some raises have not kicked in yet. The estimate for the county is done early in the year before it is clear what some employment expenses will be.
St. Petersburg is careful to keep track of the EMS money, said Assistant Fire Chief James Wimberly. The money is kept in a separate account and, if there is any unspent at the end of the year, it's kept in the EMS fund. It does not go elsewhere, he said.
The county does not require departments to return unspent funds at the end of the year.
Safety Harbor also showed salaries lower than what it had presented to the county. County records show the city received $826,135 for the current fiscal year and $339,297 of that was for paramedic salaries. But that's $29,373 more than the city's records show those paramedics earning.
The difference is accounted for by overtime, Safety Harbor fire Chief Joe Accetta said. Although most overtime is supposed to go elsewhere on the county form, one type of overtime can be counted into the salary column.
The salary numbers are just a starting point. The amount of pay affects Social Security, pension benefits and the amount the county kicks in for replacements for paramedics who are sick or on vacation. The higher the salary, the higher those costs climb. So the effect of a misstated salary figure can quickly magnify.
East Lake wasn't the only department whose records matched up. Seminole, St. Pete Beach, Gulfport, Madeira Beach, Oldsmar and South Pasadena all had funding requests that equaled, or nearly equaled, the salary information on each employee.
That's "as it should" be, said East Lake fire Division Chief Tom Jamison. "We used the real numbers. We pull actual salaries from our contracts. … That's what they wanted. That's what they got."
St. Pete Beach fire Chief Tom Malone said his city's finance manager took the process "very much to heart."
This is the first year the county has asked the departments to be accountable, he said, and there's no reason to "fudge these numbers." It's kind of like dealing with the IRS, he said.
"If you do it wrong, they're going to catch you," Malone said. "The old saying is, honesty's the best policy."
The county does intend to get tougher. While officials might not have asked many questions going into this budget year, that's likely to change coming out of it. Each of the departments is facing an audit at the end of this fiscal year.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.