Sunday, August 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas Suncoast fire district commissioners vote to settle lawsuit with county

SEMINOLE — Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District commissioners unanimously approved an agreement to settle a lawsuit the district filed against Pinellas County over millions of dollars of emergency medical services funding.

The independent fire district that covers a cluster of coastal communities won't get back the $5.2 million officials feel they were owed. Instead, the settlement commissioners approved on Tuesday guaranteed money from the county going forward and set the tone for a working relationship between the two governments.

The outcome didn't send millions immediately flowing into district coffers, and the suit racked up about $86,000 in legal fees. But some fire district officials lauded it as a victory that will help stabilize the agency's finances and showed the county that they're serious about getting what they believe is their fair share of funding.

"It's unfortunate the money had to be spent," Fire Commission Chairman Joe Bruni said of the legal costs, adding: "Without (the lawsuit) in place, I'm not sure the county would have paid much attention."

Commissioner Lawrence Schear was not as satisfied as he read prepared comments criticizing several specific sections of the agreement. After the meeting, he called the outcome "the best of a bad situation."

County commissioners still have to approve the agreement. County officials who were observing Tuesday's meeting declined to comment because the dispute is still considered under litigation.

Under Pinellas' system, revenue from a countywide property tax is distributed to 18 fire departments that contract with the county to provide EMS coverage, including Pinellas Suncoast.

According to the lawsuit, the county slashed EMS funding for Fire Station 28 in unincorporated Oakhurst beginning in fiscal year 2009-10 and for Fire Station 26 in Indian Shores the next year. That left only one paramedic position funded until last year, when funding for Station 26 was restored, said Dave Martin, the district's finance director. The settlement guarantees the county will fund at least two paramedic positions in perpetuity.

The agreement also provides about $1.8 million next fiscal year to fund EMS costs for all three stations, including Station 27 in Indian Rocks Beach. After that, funding for Station 26 is contingent on an EMS station the county is planning to build in nearby North Redington Beach. If the station comes to fruition, funding for both the new station and Station 26 is unlikely because the call volume in the area warrants only one.

Finally, the agreement makes certain projects, including updates to Station 28 and an outdated fire boat, eligible for Penny for Pinellas dollars if voters renew the one-cent sales tax in November. Funding for the projects, however, isn't guaranteed.

The original threat to sue came in 2015, less than a year into Salvatore D'Angelo's tenure as fire chief. D'Angelo, who announced his resignation last month, said the agreement was a "big step forward in a positive direction for Pinellas Suncoast." He said afterward that while the original intention was to get the money back, the adversarial nature of the suit subsided as discussions turned to the future.

Indian Rocks Beach resident Nancy Izor-Obarski, who is part of a small group of vocal residents who come to every commission meeting, said she was glad commissioners voted to "stop the bleeding." She added that she thought the issue could have been resolved without a lawsuit in the first place.

John Pfanstiehl, another Indian Rocks Beach resident, echoed her concerns during public comment at the meeting.

"How much did this lawsuit cost?" he said. "And the other question is whether this could have been accomplished without all of the legal expenses of doing a lawsuit."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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