The county's paramedics are going to operate on less money next year, but taxpayers will be paying more for emergency medical services.
Odd? That's because while the 18 fire rescue departments have reduced costs, the county will raise the EMS tax by an average 41 percent to build reserves and help plug a budget deficit.
The EMS system is facing a $16 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and an additional anticipated $3.1 million shortfall during the 2012-13 fiscal year, primarily because of falling property values. If nothing is done, the deficit could cripple the EMS system by 2013, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said. The complete formula for avoiding bankruptcy and establishing long-term financial health is the tax increase, plus cost cutting, plus the implementation of a proposal to change the way the EMS system is funded.
LaSala wants to increase the EMS tax rate by about $0.24 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable value. That's about a 41 percent increase. That's a bit less than the 46 percent increase LaSala projected earlier this year.
Currently, EMS taxes on a home with an assessed, taxable property value of $150,000 and $50,000 in homestead exemptions are about $58.32 per year. If LaSala's recommendation passes, the owner of that home would pay about $24 more per year, or about $82.32.
The most recent county figures show that the 18 cities and fire districts that provide EMS will receive about $230,894 less from property tax money than they did this year. That's about a 0.6 percent drop in costs.
That's less than the 5 percent overall increase in costs projected when the cities and districts submitted their requests a few weeks ago.
The differences came in part from tighter county scrutiny of personnel and spending.
One example of the tighter oversight came with the budget for Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue. When the budgets were first submitted to the county, Pinellas Suncoast asked for $784,352 for the 2011-12 fiscal year, an increase of $238,366 over the current budget.
"We've been going back and forth over those numbers," Pinellas Suncoast Chief Robert Polk said. "The question for us revolved around officers."
The county believed it should not have to pay for a paramedic lieutenant but only for a paramedic/firefighter. The county held firm, and Pinellas Suncoast will receive only a $42,980 increase for the coming year.
The county also audited the individual EMS budgets. In some cases, they found county EMS money that had not been spent, or that was being held until it accumulated enough to buy equipment. The county let the individual districts keep that money, but deducted it from the amount they will receive from property taxes next year.
That happened with the Lealman Fire District. That district had negotiated concessions from its fire union, enabling Lealman to end the year with money left over, Chief Rick Graham said.
Rather than take back the money, the county used it to offset what Lealman would have gotten from property taxes next year. The result is that Lealman looks as if it has taken a $540,367 hit in the budget. But that's just the taxpayers' savings.
Cities and districts can expect closer scrutiny of spending to get harsher.
"Each time, we're toughening this up," said Craig Hare, the county's EMS division manager.
The Sunstar ambulance system will not be affected by the tax proposal. User fees fund that part of the EMS system.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.