CLEARWATER — Some Pinellas County taxpayers have, for years, talked of consolidating the county's 18 fire departments as a way to save money, but the idea has never gone anywhere.
County Commissioner Norm Roche found out why on Tuesday: Despite severe budget woes, his fellow commissioners refused to even discuss it.
Roche had proposed that the commission ask state legislators to consider eliminating the county's four independent fire districts as a prelude to consolidation. Roche said his idea was a way to get everyone to the table to finally work out a consolidation of fire, emergency medical services and ambulance transport issues.
"Let's have it out there for consideration," Roche said.
Even though several commissioners conceded that taxpayers have asked them to consolidate services, they refused to forward Roche's proposal to the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation.
Ken Welch called the idea inflammatory and said he'd seen no local legislators willing to tackle the issue. Neil Brickfield said it was provocative. They agreed with Nancy Bostock and Susan Latvala that the idea might be good, but it was premature. Commission member Karen Seel was not present.
"This is a conversation for somewhere down the road," Latvala said. "A can of worms has now been opened. (The fire districts and cities) think the county is after them. … Pursuing it now, I think would be a very dangerous situation."
Roche's proposal comes at a time when the county is facing a financial crisis in its emergency medical services system. County Administrator Bob LaSala, who says the system will be bankrupt in 2013 unless something is done, has proposed raising property taxes by more than 40 percent and a new way of funding the system. LaSala would pay the fire districts and cities for a limited number of firefighter-paramedics. They would pay the average salary and benefits of all paramedics across the county rather than the actual salary and benefits.
It's an idea county commissioners seem to be buying. They agreed Tuesday to ask the Legislature to pass a law that would allow the county to set the funding and service levels for emergency medical services across the county.
Some fire chiefs and city officials have criticized LaSala's proposal as an attempt to shove costs onto local shoulders rather than fix the system. Others say there are better solutions — three firefighters have submitted two separate proposals to have firefighters rather than Sunstar ambulances take victims to hospitals as a way to save money.
Rather than deal with them separately, Roche's proposal had the ultimate goal of consolidating fire, emergency medical services and ambulance transport under one countywide umbrella. But to get there, he said, everyone — fire districts, cities, firefighters, consumers, elected officials — has to come to the table. He said his request that the Legislature eliminate the special fire districts was a way to jump-start the process.
It was also a way to get the idea of consolidation on the table, he said. For years, there has been an undercurrent of discussion in the county that a single department, or a few larger departments, would be more cost efficient than the current 18 agencies.
"If we are truly looking at all the options … let's have it out there for consideration," Roche said.
But his fellow commissioners say they want to first solve the EMS funding issue, then perhaps move onto fire consolidation, a process that could take years.
"At this point," Roche said, "there's an end to the discussion of consolidation."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.