ST. PETERSBURG — City Council Chairman Jim Kennedy says a lawsuit is the only way to resolve the stalemate between the city and the county over funding of the emergency medical services system.
Kennedy said he plans to recommend at the Nov. 21 council meeting that St. Petersburg sue Pinellas County.
The city, he said, has two issues. The first is money. The county wants St. Petersburg to lop about $7 million — about 58 percent — off of its $12 million EMS budget. The second issue is the city's objection to the way the county plans to implement priority dispatch — a system designed to get the right vehicles and personnel to sick and injured people.
"They have flat-out told us they are not going to pay us," Kennedy said Thursday. "It's not a good thing for governments to be suing each other, but we have no option."
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said, "I think that's a very unfortunate circumstance, but I'm not surprised.
"Apparently, it's very difficult for the city to look at this issue in terms of the best interests of their citizens as compared to the best interest of their bureaucracy."
EMS funding, which is paid by a countywide property tax, became an issue a couple of years ago as the economy tanked and property values dropped. The County Commission dug into savings to fund the system and LaSala warned that the fund would be bankrupt in 2013 unless changes were made.
LaSala proposed a plan that would reduce the number of firefighter/paramedics paid by the county. It would also pay each of them the average wage of Pinellas firefighter/paramedics without regard to their actual salaries. LaSala estimated the plan would bring a savings of about $11 million to the $106 million EMS budget. The bulk of those savings would come from the cut to St. Petersburg's budget.
St. Petersburg and officials from some other cities and fire districts have criticized the plan as reducing service and transferring a countywide tax burden onto the shoulders of local taxpayers.
St. Petersburg council members met with county commissioners on Oct. 31 to air their differences. Kennedy and city staff met again Wednesday with county officials.
Kennedy said the city made several offers, including absorbing some pension costs, which would save the county an estimated $5 million over 10 years. The city also offered to transport patients without charging the county extra for the service. That could have saved the county as much as $3 million a year. The city also asked to be cut out of the EMS system so it could be independent.
"It was basically determined that the county had no interest in pursuing any of those ideas," Kennedy said. "We get two choices: take a 60 percent cut in funding or give them the keys to the system because we can't run it with a 60 percent cut."
LaSala said the county is willing to take over St. Petersburg's EMS service.
"I said, 'Okay, we'll take the keys.' In other words, we would provide medical first response," LaSala said. The answer, he said, was "not until we've gone to court first."
LaSala agreed the issue is money.
"This isn't about fire transport. This isn't about response times. This is about money. I think the suggestion by Mr. Kennedy that the City Council authorize going to court is a pretty draconian one," LaSala said. "It's a pretty narrow view of things."
Kennedy disagreed, saying the suit was sparked by the county's refusal to budge.
"I don't believe we're being presented with any choices," he said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.