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Plan would change how EMS tax money in Pinellas is divided

ST. PETERSBURG — County Administrator Bob LaSala wants to revamp the way Pinellas divvies up its emergency medical services tax money so that all firefighter/paramedics receive the same amount.

It's an idea LaSala says is "fair and equitable."

But to St. Petersburg council members, who face the loss of up to two-thirds of the EMS money they get from the county, the idea is anything but.

"It is an unpalatable option," St. Petersburg council member Herb Polson told LaSala during a workshop last week. "I think we are being disproportionately affected."

Under LaSala's plan, which he wants to begin in October 2012, the county would average the cost of firefighter/paramedic salaries and benefits across Pinellas. The county would then give that amount to the 18 cities and fire districts for each EMS-funded firefighter/paramedic.

The overall effect would be a countywide savings of between $11 million and $15.2 million over the current plan, which has the county paying the full freight for each funded position. That amount varies from fire district to fire district depending on negotiated salaries and benefits and whether the city or district puts its highest paid firefighter/paramedics in the county-funded seats.

The individual effect would vary vastly depending on the district. The Pinellas Suncoast Fire District, for example, would see an estimated $89,302 to $207,153 increase in funding.

Palm Harbor could receive about $203,439 less in funding or $91,188 more in funding, depending on whether the county adds in the cost of replacement paramedics for vacations and sick days.

Harder hit would be Clearwater, which would see an estimated loss in tax money of about $905,126 to $1.6 million.

But hardest hit would be St. Petersburg, which would see a loss ranging from $7.3 million to $8.1 million. The city currently receives about $12.5 million from the countywide EMS property tax.

Noting that many of the districts that would benefit most — or be least hurt — under LaSala's plan are the tax-rich beach areas, St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said, "It's a shift of money from the poorest communities to the wealthiest communities."

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St. Petersburg answers more calls for emergency services in Pinellas than any other agency — 40,155 of the 143,964 EMS calls in the 2009-10 fiscal year, Nurse said. The next busiest district was Clearwater, which answered 21,635 calls that year.

It's not right, Nurse said, that St. Petersburg should do most of the work but lose the most money.

"You don't really expect us just to go happily into the night in that situation, do you?" he asked LaSala.

But the council stopped short of threatening what Polson called the "S word" over the issue. Rather than sue, should the County Commission adopt LaSala's plan later in the year, Polson said he would like to see his council sit down with county commissioners now to see if they can work out a plan that is fair and equitable.

"I personally believe it's prudent to exhaust options before you make a significant irreversible decision," he said.

Polson said he believes his fellow council members are open to the idea. Whether the County Commission is willing may be another thing. Polson, who serves on the city's ad hoc EMS committee, said his group has three times sent a letter to the commission asking to sit down to discuss issues.

"We've not gotten a response," Polson said.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Plan would change how EMS tax money in Pinellas is divided 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 3:57pm]

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