An 18.5 percent tax rate hike is needed to pay for emergency medical services next year without dipping into savings, according to the county's budget experts.
But it is unclear if Pinellas officials will increase the property tax rate. Last year, they approved a 46 percent rate increase for this year's budget. When they approved the hike, they vowed not to bump it up again to pay for EMS in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said he's not sure if he'll recommend an increase when he presents his proposed budget to the County Commission this month.
Some commissioners oppose any rate increase.
"I would rather go into reserves before raising anybody's taxes," Neil Brickfield said. "We took a pretty firm stand last year that we weren't interested in raising anyone's taxes again."
A combination of factors is fueling the higher cost of delivering emergency medical services. A memo from Bill Berger of the county's budget office outlined some of them:
• A $2 million, or 5 percent, increase in the amount the county gives 18 fire departments for providing first-response EMS.
• A $1.2 million, or 3 percent, increase in the cost of the contract with Paramedics Plus, the private company that provides ambulance service under the name Sunstar.
• A $600,000, or 10 percent, increase in administrative charges. Administrative charges include salaries of county employees who oversee the system.
• A 1.72 percent decrease in property values.
• The need to maintain a 25 percent reserve in case of emergencies.
Boosting the rate by 18.5 percent would take it from the current 85 cents (0.8506 mills) per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property to about $1.04 (1.0356 mills). That's about 31 percent less than the $1.50 cap on the rate.
It's unclear how soon the county could reach the cap. LaSala said it depends on property values. The more and faster they decrease, the more quickly tax rates could go up and the higher the risk of bumping up against the cap. The situation emphasizes the need for reform, officials said.
"This system begs for solutions to the cost of doing business and the way we operate," LaSala said.
Commissioner Nancy Bostock agreed that changes need to happen.
"The cap is certainly a concern," Bostock said. "Every (indication) out there says get busy with reform."
Talk of EMS reform has been high on the commission's agenda for the past few years.
Last year, LaSala proposed sweeping changes to the way the county pays the fire districts for EMS. Those included reducing the number of emergency vehicles and firefighter/paramedics the county would pay for, and paying each department the same amount for a paramedic no matter the actual salary.
Many cities and districts opposed LaSala's proposal, saying it would cut services and lengthen response times. Some firefighters came up with their own plans for fixing the system — letting firefighters rather than an ambulance company take patients to the hospital. One proposed plan would have firefighters transport only emergency patients. Another would have firefighters transport both emergency and nonemergency patients. Non-emergency patients include those who are moved from one hospital to another and those who must be taken for tests.
Several county commissioners say they are interested in giving fire transport a try. But they're not sure it will work with Pinellas' fragmented system of 18 EMS providers. Nor are they certain whether it would save money.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, created a committee with members from the county side and the fire side to find consultants to evaluate both plans and find answers to those questions. That committee is scheduled to meet July 9 to hear presentations from two finalists for the job. The committee's choice will go to the County Commission for final approval.
But an answer is unlikely by the end of this year. In the meantime, the commission is inching closer to the cap.
That would seem to leave little time for the commission to make a reasoned decision about the best course for county EMS and to implement that change. But LaSala said he thinks there will be time.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.