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Pinellas politicians say economics may thin number of fire districts

At least two county commissioners can envision a day in the next few years when economics force some of the county's smaller fire districts to shut down.

Commissioners Calvin Harris and Susan Latvala were talking about the county's independent fire districts — such as Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue, Lealman Fire and Rescue, Palm Harbor Fire Rescue and East Lake Tarpon Fire & Rescue — which have the authority to collect property taxes in their areas to provide service.

"We might need to be willing to let some of the independent fire districts fail," Harris told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Wednesday.

Harris added in a later interview that those independent districts "that are not financially solvent … will have to merge or do something else."

Latvala said Friday that the county has "no responsibility" to bail out districts.

"That would be an endless hole," Latvala said. "I think our days of shoring up anybody are over."

Pinellas Suncoast has been suffering financial hardships for several years, and Lealman has appeared to be on the edge of fiscal difficulties. The department is maintaining the property tax rate for the coming fiscal year but at one point considering raising it 22.7 percent to pay for the fire portion of the budget.

If the county refuses to bail out an independent district by increasing its EMS funding or in other ways, the district must raise money in other ways. Suncoast, for example, is asking voters in November to approve a proposal to allow an automatic annual increase in the fee property owners pay for fire protection. Lealman can raise its tax rate to $10 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property value. That would make fire taxes for a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption $1,000 a year. Currently, that homeowner would pay about $448.

Or, the Legislature could step in.

State Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, a retired fire lieutenant, said the Legislature could remove the independent status of a district.

"Lealman may be the first one to undergo that," Hooper said. "I'm worried about them."

Lealman, an unincorporated area between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, has some of the poorest people in the county. A poor economy, plunging property values and the high cost of fire service are taking their toll, making it uncertain if the district can survive, Hooper said.

If the economy continues to be bad and property values continue to drop, he said, the Legislature might be forced to step in.

"I don't know that we will have a choice," Hooper said. "I think that day will come in the next two years."

As for Suncoast, Hooper said, "they may die."

The loss of those two, and perhaps other districts, is likely inevitable given the situation, Harris said. Those losses would continue a pattern that began long ago when volunteer fire departments gave way to professional ones. And, with the county hoping to develop a more streamlined, cost-efficient system, departmental losses and mergers are almost a given.

"We don't need all of the players to cover it," Harris said. "It's going to take some countywide thinking and discussion. Some of them will have to go out of the equation in what's best for the whole."

Latvala agreed that there will be fewer departments in Pinellas' future.

"I don't know that I see it happening right away," Latvala said. "But, for efficiency's sake, I think some of them should (go) sooner rather than later."

Times writer Diane Steinle contributed to this report. Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas politicians say economics may thin number of fire districts 09/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 7:39pm]
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