CLEARWATER — One thing seemed clear from the discussion at the County Commission workshop Monday: County Administrator Bob LaSala's plan to change the funding formula for fire departments that provide emergency medical services is going nowhere, at least not now.
Instead, commissioners were more interested in trying other ideas, including letting firefighters transport patients, privatizing the system and creating a task force to help iron out some of the issues.
Commissioners also heard about a proposal that would allow them to set EMS tax rates according to each district's expenses rather than simply assess one rate for the entire county. They struggled with the prospect of renewing the contract with Paramedics Plus, the private, for-profit company that provides ambulance service under the name Sunstar.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on both in December.
EMS has been a looming issue in Pinellas for the past few years as costs mounted and tax money became more scarce. The county hired Integral Performance Systems to do a $130,000 study of the system and come up with ways to save money while not affecting service. The suggestion, which LaSala has championed, was to fund all firefighter/paramedic positions equally, no matter what their actual pay is.
LaSala's proposal was criticized as merely shifting a countywide tax onto the shoulders of local taxpayers who would have to make up the difference in those districts where firefighters made more. The plan also included a reduction in the number of firefighter/paramedics, which critics said would hurt service.
The biggest objections have come from St. Petersburg officials. LaSala's proposal would whack $7 million out of their $12 million EMS budget. Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council say they will sue if something is not worked out. Foster and council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Wengay Newton came to Monday's workshop.
County Commissioner Ken Welch, a St. Petersburg resident, responded to their concerns. Welch said he had difficulties with the cost-shifting aspect of the LaSala/IPS proposal. Moving the tax from one line to another on a tax bill is not really saving money, Welch said.
"I don't support IPS as written," he said. "The answer is in the middle."
For Welch, that meant accepting St. Petersburg's offer to absorb about $750,000 a year in unfunded pension issues and to let the city try a pilot program that would allow firefighters to take patients to the hospital between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The city has estimated that would save the county $2.5 million to $3 million a year.
Commissioner Nancy Bostock wanted to go further and have the group think "boldly about fire-based transport."
"My first reaction to the IPS study was total under-whelment," Bostock said.
Bostock said she found St. Petersburg's transport proposal to be "exciting."
Commissioner Neil Brickfield proposed a pilot project that would allow Paramedics Plus to provide both first response EMS and transport — essentially privatizing the system.
Commissioners were less sure what to do about the contract with Paramedics Plus, which is up for a three-year renewal next week. Some wanted to renew for one year. Others, for two. Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala favored renewing for three years because of a company offer to reduce its fee by $2.5 million this year and for the next three years — a $10 million savings to the county.
But other commissioners did not like a clause in the proposal that would ban the county from using fire transport, even as a pilot project. If the county violated that clause, it would have to pay Paramedics Plus a penalty of $5 million a year — potentially $15 million.
Commissioners said they would not commit the county to such a deal, but they were more open to the idea of renewing for three years if Paramedics Plus would allow them to try fire transport and remove the penalty clause.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.