Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

State Sen. Jack Latvala may move to remove EMS from Pinellas County oversight

An influential state senator is so frustrated with Pinellas' handling of the emergency medical services system that he's willing to take control away from the County Commission.

"This is an issue that has not gone away," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "This member of the delegation does not like the decisions the county has made."

Latvala, who made his comments Monday at the end of a legislative delegation meeting, added that unless the county "starts being more collaborative," he will introduce and work to pass a bill next year that would create a new agency to oversee EMS.

It's unclear how that might work. State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said he was prepared to sponsor a companion bill in the house had Latvala wanted to move forward this year. The idea, Ahern said, was to create an independent board made up of elected representatives from the county and the 18 cities and fire districts that provide the EMS service.

"It would allow them to decide their fate," Ahern said.

It's unclear whether the board would be able to levy its own taxes, like the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or have to go to the county for its funding, like the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The PSTA oversees the county's bus system. The MPO develops plans, policies and priorities that guide local decisionmaking on transportation issues.

Reaction to the idea was mixed.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster supported the idea, saying, "I'm game."

County Commissioner Karen Seel said she believes it's too soon to have that discussion. She believes a forthcoming study of the system will provide solutions that all will find acceptable.

"It's too soon to set off the rockets," Seel said.

County Commissioner Norm Roche said he believes Latvala was "just chest beating." The idea of removing EMS from county oversight is a bad one and unnecessary, he said.

"I don't think that would be successful," Roche said. "I think local folks want local control of their public safety. … The County Commission is quite capable of managing this once we get all the information together."

Like Seel, Roche is hoping the study will provide direction.

Bert Polk, head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, said he was disappointed that Latvala was not going to introduce a bill this legislative session.

"Next year, it could well be too late," said Polk, who also is chief of Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue. "I really don't know what that was intended to accomplish today."

But Polk said he agreed that collaboration is necessary.

"The fire chiefs, per se, have been very, very minimized in this discussion," Polk said. "That, I believe, was intentional. We are often described as representing no one. … We have not been invited to the table."

Roche agreed that there have been comments critical of fire departments coming from the county. Earlier this month, Roche reprimanded County Administrator Bob LaSala for making comments "that the fire bureaucracy was causing trouble."

"Why fuel the fire?" Roche asked. "Stop. There's no need for that, guys. It's been contentious enough."

EMS has been a hot-button issue in Pinellas for the past several years as costs have mounted. County officials put most of the blame for the increased costs on the 18 fire departments that contract with it to provide first-response service. LaSala and many of the county's cities and fire districts, fire chiefs and firefighters have been locked in a debate over the best way to streamline the system to cut costs.

Complicating the situation is the state statute that created the EMS system. It requires the Legislature to approve any substantive changes to it.

Last year, Latvala intervened in the dispute by creating a committee to choose an accountant to evaluate both plans. At the time, county and fire officials agreed to stand down and not make any changes to the system until that was complete.

But earlier this month, county commissioners narrowly agreed to reduce the number of paramedics sent to some low-level calls. For those, only an ambulance will be sent. The system will kick in June 1, after the study is complete.

Latvala said Monday that while that decision was not a technical violation of the agreement, it did break the spirit of the pact. He considered submitting a bill this session to take control away from the county, but decided to wait.

Polk, the fire chief, wondered about the message that waiting sent to the county:

"We thought there was an agreement with consequences for not complying. It seems the only party that did not comply was the county. But there is no consequence."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

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