St. Petersburg may pull out of EMS system as cuts loom

St. Petersburg is one of five fire departments that run the majority of Pinellas County’s EMS calls. A proposed county budget would see funds to these five locales significantly reduced over the next three years.

SCOTT KEELER | TIMES (2011)

St. Petersburg is one of five fire departments that run the majority of Pinellas County’s EMS calls. A proposed county budget would see funds to these five locales significantly reduced over the next three years.

ST. PETERSBURG — The county this year proposed slashing the money it pays St. Petersburg for providing emergency medical services.

Today, City Council members are scheduled to discuss possible responses, including a proposal that St. Petersburg pull out of the countywide structure and create its own EMS system.

It could not be done quickly or easily. At the very least, the Legislature would have to "abolish the special act that makes the County Commission the EMS authority for the county," St. Petersburg council member Jim Kennedy said. Kennedy is chairman of the council's EMS committee.

It's a step the city may be willing to take if Pinellas officials hold firm to a proposal by County Administrator Bob LaSala to slash EMS funding to St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Lealman — the fire departments that run the majority of EMS calls.

In addition to the initial cuts, the proposal includes a three-year budget freeze and, after that, a cap on the percentage of increases. The freeze and the cap would apply to all 18 fire departments that provide EMS service, not just the five that would sustain cuts. LaSala says his proposal will save about $60 million over the next 10 years.

Under LaSala's plan, the cuts would be phased in over the next three years. All future increases, if any, would be figured from that new base. This year, for example, St. Petersburg received about $12.5 million from the county to provide EMS service. LaSala wants to slash that by 8.6 percent, or about $1.1 million.

But St. Petersburg officials say that's ignoring the true financial impact. Between the cuts and the freeze, the city actually stands to lose about $4.4 million over the next three years, or about 35 percent of its budget. The loss, over 10 years, is projected to be about $22.1 million. If the county holds firm, the city has two basic choices, they say: reduce services or shift the burden to St. Petersburg taxpayers to make up the lost costs. Neither, Kennedy said, is "going to be acceptable."

"We intend to maintain our level of service," Kennedy said. "If we allow this cost shift to go on … you're going to be paying taxes that go to your fire department that actually (will be used to) provide your EMS service."

He agreed that would be a form of double taxation for St. Petersburg taxpayers who, like all Pinellas property owners, are already paying a countywide tax to fund countywide EMS service.

In short, Kennedy said, St. Petersburg cannot accept LaSala's plan as presented. That leaves few choices: Negotiate. Go to court to force the county to support the system as it's required to do by state law. (This was done in the 1980s — the courts sided with St. Petersburg.) Or leave the system.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has offered to negotiate, but it's unclear how successful he'll be. LaSala and county commissioners have indicated they plan to hold firm because, if they yield for one department, they'll have to do the same for others and the savings would be lost.

If no compromise is available, the two options left on the table, Kennedy said, "go down different roads. One goes to the Legislature, and one goes to the courthouse."

Kennedy, a lawyer, said he prefers the legal route in part because of the 1989 court order forcing the county to adequately fund the system.

"I believe that the court order is something that we can definitely enforce, and I feel like I have more of a predictability of what would happen in the court system than in the Legislature," Kennedy said. "So, from my point of view, I think the most straightforward way of doing this is through the court system and maintaining the status quo. But do we end up doing this every year?"

One of the council's newest members, Darden Rice, who serves on the EMS committee, said she agrees that the best tactic in the short term is to wait and see how negotiations between Kriseman and LaSala pan out. If they fail, that's time to talk about more aggressive responses.

But, in the long run, Rice said the sustainability issue will not go away.

"It's clear that at some point we'll have to look at ways to restructure the EMS system," Rice said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @ALindbergTimes on Twitter.

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St. Petersburg's choices

If the county holds firm to a plan to cut $60 million from the EMS system over the next decade, city leaders say they have few choices:

• Reduce services or shift the burden to St. Petersburg taxpayers to make up the lost costs, which could be considered double taxation because residents already pay a county EMS tax.

• Sue the county to support the system as required by state law. This was done in the 1980s and the courts sided with St. Petersburg.

• Pull out of the countywide structure and create a citywide EMS system, which would require special state legislation and severely cripple the countywide service.

St. Petersburg may pull out of EMS system as cuts loom 03/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 11:28pm]

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