Some officials in Pinellas County are predicting a consolidation of fire and emergency services that leads to anywhere from two to eight departments surviving, down from the current 18.
"I think it's just the economic times," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said. "It's just going to happen (over) the next couple of years."
County Commissioner Ken Welch agreed, "I certainly think the economy is driving folks toward consolidation in a way that wasn't politically possible (before). … I think the good news is everyone agrees we can be a lot more efficient than we are now."
Pinellas County and the various departments combined to spend about $173.5 million for fire and emergency services last year. Consolidation is already happening on a small scale. Kenneth City eliminated its fire department in the mid 1990s and has contracted service ever since, first with Lealman and now Pinellas Park. More recently, the Redingtons eliminated a fire station and contract with Seminole and Madeira Beach. And just last year, Belleair Bluffs dissolved its fire department and contracted with Largo.
The county has also consolidated some services. The County Commission last year eliminated two paramedic positions from the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District and gave all the EMS service in the area to a nearby Seminole station, saving county taxpayers more than $1 million a year.
"We need to move in that direction," Welch said. "We just can't afford the duplication anymore."
Those who support the idea see it as a way to gain some economy of scale while retaining enough of the current system for departments that are accustomed to working with each other.
"I think regional consolidation is a more practical approach than a countywide consolidation of the service," Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds said. For Edmunds, the concept would be an end in itself rather than a step toward countywide consolidation.
The concept of regional consolidation is not new. At least as far back as 2005, the county floated a proposal to the then-Charter Review Commission that reduced the county to five districts. The estimated savings were more than $6 million. The major savings came from cuts in personnel spending, said Mike Cooksey, Pinellas County fire coordinator. Cooksey said there were also projected savings from the elimination of duplicative equipment, such as ladder trucks.
The idea never went anywhere after someone said the savings would be wiped out by the need to purchase all equipment and stations that were in existence at the time, Cooksey said.
"I don't know if anybody ever looked any further to see if that was true," Cooksey said.
The idea did not die. Edmunds said a similar concept was broached a couple of years ago to a countywide fire/EMS reconfiguration committee. And Gustafson said the concept of sharing services is one that comes up at every meeting among the county's city managers.
While the idea of regional consolidation is alive, the concept has several forms. One plan showed seven or eight districts. Another concept narrowed it down to three: south, mid and north regions. Still another has two: St. Petersburg and the rest of the county.
That's "the only idea that I've heard that I think has some credibility," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. "It seemed to be a bridge too far to expect St. Petersburg, because of its size" to participate in countywide consolidation. But having the rest of the county under one umbrella, Horne said, would give true economy of scale. Horne said he was doubtful that having five or six districts would be much of an economic improvement over the current system.
While the concept has supporters, it also has detractors.
"It's as much a political issue as a fiscal issue," Welch said.
Those politics have a lot to do with territoriality and community identity.
Madeira Beach taxpayers refused last year to eliminate their fire service and have Seminole take over. If residents chose to pay the higher taxes, that's their prerogative, said W. D. Higginbotham Jr., the Madeira Beach city manager.
"I would think that with the number of municipalities in Pinellas, there would be some cities that would want to maintain their departments themselves," Higginbotham said.
Richard Butcher, the acting fire chief in Tarpon Springs, conceded that he sees consolidation occurring on its own, but "a community is always for maintaining their own identity. … I think that's two different issues — economics and community."
Community pride is understandable, but most agree that when someone is having a heart attack, the only thing that counts is the service. It's not the patch on the uniform, the color of the truck or the wording on it.
There may be ways around that issue, Edmunds said. If budgets get tighter, it's also an issue that could give way to fiscal necessity. But the push has to come from residents, Welch said.
Reach Anne Lindberg at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.
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