ST. PETERSBURG — The ongoing struggle to restructure Pinellas County's costly emergency medical services system has dissolved into a fit of finger-pointing and legal threats.
At stake is the medical care of thousands of county residents.
But instead of working together on a solution to the system's $18 million budget deficit, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County elected officials can't seem to move beyond old differences in the latest feud in a decades-long power struggle between the county's largest governments.
Both governments said they want to meet to discuss common goals. But leaders on both sides said they aren't sure if they can avoid another taxpayer-funded legal battle.
St. Petersburg officials said Pinellas County rarely listens or compromises. County leaders have the same complaints, but they insist St. Petersburg is to blame.
"They don't seem to care or have an interest in what may be for the greater good of all the residents of Pinellas County," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.
St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Jeff Danner said the County Commission barely let him get a word in when he recently asked the board to delay the emergency medical system changes.
"It wasn't about working together," he said. "It was just dredging up every old wound they could possibly do."
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The county began meeting regularly with administrators from across Pinellas last year to discuss streamlining the system.
The county wants to prioritize 911 calls and require municipalities to submit more detailed budgets to get funding. County officials said the changes will not affect service levels.
But St. Petersburg leaders said the changes will cause response times to climb by at least three minutes. The city also stands to lose funding that pays for 24 paramedics' salaries.
"We asked them to stop, and they just keep plugging ahead," City Council member Bill Dudley fumed during a recent public meeting. "They haven't listened to anybody."
Earlier this month, the City Council told its legal staff to prepare for a fight. While the county agrees it is obligated to pay for the city's emergency medical response units, the issue is how much funding it must provide.
County leaders said they aren't surprised St. Petersburg is preparing to go to court.
County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris compared St. Petersburg officials to children who hide their toys from others after losing a game.
"Except they go get their lawyer and go to court," he said. "Everything becomes a legal challenge because they are always right and we are always wrong."
City Attorney John Wolfe said Pinellas has tried to exert authority over St. Petersburg with its own lawsuits. Most recently, the county sued the city after it annexed 18 acres of unincorporated Tierra Verde, claiming the maneuver was illegal.
That case is still pending. St. Petersburg thinks it will win.
"We generally have the more valid position," said Wolfe.
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Pinellas County and St. Petersburg officials aren't always at each other's throats.
The governments brought the Tampa Bay Rays to the area, created a tent shelter for the homeless, set aside money to remake the St. Petersburg Pier and joined forces to provide financial incentives to local employers.
But the governments also have had their share of ugly fights.
In recent years, elected officials from Pinellas and St. Petersburg have quarreled over curbside recycling, the location of a new Rays stadium, the regulatory authority of municipal departments and land development regulations.
"Even something like curbside recycling — where we said we will write the check — was an issue even getting them to sign on to that," complained County Commissioner Ken Welch.
Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris has observed the bickering from afar for years. Billiris works with both governments as chairwoman of the Pinellas Planning Council.
St. Petersburg can be just as pushy as the county, she said.
"It comes down to home rule," she said. "The county tries to interfere with cities' home rule and I believe the hairs go up on everybody's back."
But stalemates don't solve anything, she said.
"We all really do need to listen to each other," she said.
Cristina Silva can be (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]