CLEARWATER — Faced with the prospect of losing a fire rescue unit on Clearwater Beach, the City Council voted Monday to oppose Pinellas County's proposed budget cuts to paramedic services.
Clearwater is joining St. Petersburg, which is also opposing the cuts. The issue will be debated at a County Commission public hearing on Friday.
The cities are upset about a plan to streamline the countywide EMS system. Among other things, the proposal would reduce the number of fire rescue units that Pinellas County funds from 65 to 60.
In Clearwater, two out of six rescue units are on the chopping block because they answer fewer emergency calls than the others, said Fire Chief Jamie Geer.
They're in Station 46 at Clearwater Beach and Station 50 in Countryside. But officials are more worried about the beach because it takes longer for Sunstar ambulances or paramedics from nearby fire stations to get there when traffic is heavy.
"If I'm in a condo in March and I have a heart attack, I think I'm just going to call a funeral home," said City Council member Paul Gibson, who lives on Clearwater Beach. "Every time I think I've heard the granddaddy of bad ideas, I hear another one."
The beach and Countryside stations each have a rescue unit with two paramedics, and a fire engine equipped for basic life support with emergency medical technicians, who have less medical training.
Under the county's proposal, each station would lose its rescue unit and a paramedic would begin riding on its fire engine, turning it into an advanced life support or ALS unit, Geer said.
So a paramedic would still be available, but each station would have only one vehicle instead of two. If the engine is on a call when another medical emergency arises, a neighboring station would have to send help.
Clearwater would lose at least seven paramedics under the plan, Geer said.
Clearwater and St. Petersburg complain that the county is pushing these changes through too quickly. "The train is moving too fast," said council member John Doran.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County says it's trying to make up an $18 million budget shortfall in the EMS system in 2009-10. Officials say the cuts are necessary because of shrinking tax collections and homeowners' unwillingness to pay higher property taxes.
The cities want Pinellas to consider raising the county EMS property tax rate, which is about 58 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Raising it to 80 cents would collect another $12.5 million and would mean a $33 tax increase on a $200,000 home, Geer said.
"If this is the right level of service, we should have done it years ago," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "The reason we're doing it now is there's not the political will to change the millage rate."
Clearwater council members are sending Vice Mayor George Cretekos to argue the city's case at the county's public hearing Friday.
"I can't say that I'm surprised," assistant county administrator James Dates said by phone. "Anytime you're looking at reducing funds in any area, you're going to see some opposition — particularly when cities are struggling with their own funding."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.