PINELLAS PARK — Mayor Bill Mischler accused county commissioners of playing politics with people's lives when they refused to move a paramedic position from one fire station to another.
Mischler, who generally avoids controversy, was harsh in his criticism of the four commissioners — Nancy Bostock, John Morroni, Neil Brickfield and Ken Welch — who voted against the change. Mischler said he knew they would be angry with him for speaking up, but he said he didn't care.
"I'm not going to play politics," he said. "We're talking about public safety here."
What set off the mayor was a 4-3 decision that meant three county-paid paramedic positions will continue to be based at Lealman Fire Station 19, 6994 46th Ave. N.
Pinellas County staff members had recommended eliminating one paramedic position and moving another about a mile away to Kenneth City Fire Station 16, 4600 58th St. N, which is run by Pinellas Park. The move would have saved county taxpayers an estimated $451,000 with no loss of service overall and improved service to Lealman, Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg residents near Station 16, staff members said.
Lealman disagreed, saying run times to the western end of its district, specifically the area around the Five Towns condominiums, would suffer. The County Commission decided to take money out of savings rather than raise taxes to preserve the status quo.
"I am surprised that Commissioner (Nancy) Bostock, who I consider to be very conservative, was not willing to save the taxpayers of Pinellas County approximately half a million dollars," Mischler said.
"I am surprised that Commissioner (John) Morroni did not support Pinellas Park, which is his district. I am surprised that the town of Kenneth City did not come out to support having a rescue vehicle in the center of their city," Mischler said.
Bostock said she gave her reasons for her vote at last week's commission meeting.
"It was a hard decision. There are vested interests on both sides of the decision," Bostock said. "I'm sorry he's disappointed, but I don't want to trade barbs in the media."
Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said that she twice e-mailed commissioners with her thoughts and was also upset at their ultimate decision.
"It's extremely disappointing that they made that decision, that to me is so irresponsible," Zemaitis said. "How do you make an entire county pay for one fire district that's obviously having economic trouble at the moment? … That's what doesn't make sense to me."
Morroni could not be reached for comment.
"I am surprised that Commissioner (Neil) Brickfield did not disclose that he was a legislative lobbyist for the Lealman Fire Control District,'' Mischler said. ''I am surprised that four of the county commissioners did not follow the recommendation of their own staff, as well as the EMS advisory committee."
Part of the problem, Mischler said, is the friendships that exist between certain commission members and some in the Lealman area. Such relationships make hard decisions even harder, but they have to be made.
Brickfield said public safety was the determining factor for him.
"Everybody in that fire district has the same level of service today as they did the day this discussion started, and we did that without increasing property taxes," Brickfield said.
Brickfield conceded that he had been a lobbyist for the Lealman Fire District in 2006 when the district asked the Legislature for annexation protections. But, he said, that was about a year and a half before his election to the commission.
"That's all public knowledge," Brickfield said. "That didn't factor into the decision."
But Mischler said Brickfield should have disclosed his past relationship with Lealman.
Brickfield said that because it was so long ago, disclosure was unnecessary.
"When's the statute of limitations give up on these things?" Brickfield asked.
Welch agreed that friendships had nothing to do with his vote. Welch said he was influenced by the failure of some cities, such as St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg, to give up all that they were asked to give up last year. Instead of making all the cuts the county asked, he said St. Pete Beach made one cut and St. Petersburg threatened to sue.
Reach Anne Lindberg at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.