Pinellas County commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to change the way the emergency medical services system is funded, a move that County Administrator Bob LaSala says could save as much as $60 million over the next 10 years.
That's more than three times the savings that LaSala estimated last week. He said Tuesday that the previous estimate of $18 million in savings had been given on the fly and had not taken into account the cumulative effect of the savings.
Under the current system, the county uses revenue from a countywide EMS property tax to pay 18 cities and fire districts what they ask for in order to provide first response service. Under the new plan, the county will pay only what it believes it needs to provide EMS service at a certain level. At times, that means the county could be paying a firefighter/paramedic for only part of a 24-hour shift if it thinks it only needs a part-time responder. If the city or fire district wanted to keep the position staffed full-time, the money would come from city or district funds.
Other savings would come from a three-year budget freeze and, after that, a cap on the percentage of increases in the budget.
"I don't think it's going to be totally popular with everyone, but it is what it is," commission chairwoman Karen Seel said.
Those expected to be the least happy are the four cities and one fire district — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Lealman — that will lose a total of about $2.3 million because of the change. But it doesn't appear to matter if they don't like it.
"They're not entitled" to provide EMS service, LaSala said. If they don't want to provide the service at the rate the county wants to pay, then Pinellas can deliver EMS in those areas another way, whether it is by private contractor or bidding out the service to another Pinellas fire department.
The next step is for the county to set financial limitations for each of the fire departments to meet when turning in their budgets for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Those budgets are due this spring.
The decision came during a testy workshop that saw one commissioner apologize to a fire chief for LaSala's conduct.
Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue Chief Bert Polk, speaking as head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, had pointed out several criticisms of the plan that included longer response times and the shifting of EMS costs from the county to individual departments and the taxpayers in those areas.
LaSala, who told commissioners that several city managers support his idea and plan to recommend that their cities support it, said he wanted to remind listeners that fire chiefs aren't elected and do not have the say-so over what their cities and districts do. He also corrected what he deemed were misstatements on Polk's part.
When Polk started to protest, LaSala left the room.
"This is not the first time we've been subjected to similar behavior," Polk said. "I personally find it moderately offensive that we continue to be belittled. . . . The rhetoric and conduct we receive when we come here furthers no cause."
Polk apologized if he had been "politically incorrect."
Commissioner Norm Roche said, "Let me apologize for your feelings of offense."
The "us vs. them" attitude helps no one, he said. And, Roche said, he wants to hear what the chiefs and others who are responsible for ensuring the system runs think about proposals.
"For this commission, I apologize," Roche said.
LaSala said his comments were not intended to represent Polk or his organization.
But county officials conceded that at least two of Polk's points were accurate. Response times — which average 4½ minutes countywide — will likely increase although they will stay within the county requirement of 7½ minutes 90 percent of the time. By one estimate, the average response time would increase by about five seconds.
Later in the day, during a discussion of funding for the so-called dependent fire districts, they conceded that "reductions in EMS funding may cause fire budgets to increase."
The dependent districts are unincorporated areas that look to Pinellas for fire service. Because the county has no fire department, it pays other departments to provide service to those areas.