Belleair Bluffs' fire chief ousted after controversy over deal with Largo

BELLEAIR BLUFFS — A little more than a year ago this town stood on the brink of what appeared to be a sunny, new era.

Officials had shrugged off Largo's management of the city's Fire Department and had hired a new chief to pilot it into a happily-ever-after kind of future.

But there was no happily ever after. The City Council fired the chief Wednesday at a hastily called meeting that saw the mayor accused of deliberately sabotaging the Fire Department and trying to personally profit from a proposal to have Largo take over the town's fire service.

"That's just the most ludicrous stuff I've ever heard in my entire life," Mayor Chris Arbutine said. "For anyone to level such accusations is an insult. … You don't dignify those comments with a response."

The route to Wednesday's 3-2 decision is a tangled one that goes at least as far back as late 2007. At the time, the Largo Fire Department managed the Belleair Bluffs department, an arrangement reached after the departure of the Belleair Bluffs chief left the staff of 12 firefighters and one station without a leader.

The idea seemed a good one because Belleair Bluffs had little money and was using Largo's paramedics. But the relationship was rocky and the situation reached a boiling point in late 2007 when Largo's acting fire chief, Karry Bell, lost his job after an emotional confrontation with some Belleair Bluffs firefighters over a grievance.

Belleair Bluffs decided to become totally independent and, in April 2008, hired Patrick Competelli, a district chief from the Dunedin Fire Department, to run the department. But this past April, Belleair decided to terminate its $500,000 contract with Belleair Bluffs for fire service. Belleair's move to Largo would save it an estimated $125,000 per year, but the contract loss was a devastating hit to Belleair Bluffs' $1.3 million fire budget.

The bad news didn't end there. Pinellas County got nervous when the news about Belleair hit and said it would no longer give Belleair Bluffs $400,000 in EMS funding.

Belleair Bluffs had two choices: Raise taxes to make up the lost revenue or kill the department and outsource fire protection.

Arbutine said keeping the department would have meant tripling the property tax rate. Or, he could let Largo do the job for $244,225 a year.

As part of the deal, Largo agreed to hire all 12 firefighters, eight of whom would get raises. Otherwise, nothing else would change — the same firefighters would continue working out of the Belleair Bluffs department. The only step left was a voter referendum, scheduled for Sept. 1.

Competelli appeared to buy into the idea, telling residents they "should vote to allow Largo Fire Rescue to provide fire and EMS services to your city." He went on to praise Largo as a world class organization that could "provide much more equipment for less money."

Competelli never mentioned safety concerns nor did he question whether response times would increase.

That was June 30. Over the next few weeks, the situation between Competelli and Arbutine became increasingly strained. Arbutine has said Competelli threw a pen at him during one heated debate and had to be escorted from the council meeting by a deputy. Competelli has denied throwing a pen.

Competelli said Wednesday that he changed his mind about the consolidation when he realized some of that city's officials were misrepresenting EMS figures. Competelli also charged that Arbutine had failed to send budgets to the county in an effort to make it impossible to retain the department and had even said, "we are going to make this so expensive that the citizens will have to vote for it."

Competelli and Belleair Bluffs Council member Suzy Sofer also met with officials from Belleair.

"He was telling me one thing while he was meeting with the city manager and town of Belleair to try to get them to renege on the contract with Largo," said Mike Wallace, Largo's fire chief. "He was not an honest broker in the end."

Competelli wrote a memo Monday raising those issues as well as safety concerns about response times. He said the city should not give up its department.

Wallace said he's unsure why safety issues are being raised now when the deal, which provides the same staffing from the same building as currently exists, has not changed since June 30.

One item that did come up was Competelli's future. Wallace said Competelli wanted to be chief of another department or at least a management-level chief with Largo.

Wallace offered Competelli an entry-level, code enforcement job at $38,000 a year, less than half the $85,000 salary he's earning in Belleair Bluffs.

"He didn't even want to consider a starting salary, entry-level position," Wallace said.

That offer was made after Competelli's June 30 speech endorsing the Largo deal.

Competelli said Thursday that he did not want to "get into" details of the employment offer but that it had nothing to do with his change of heart. The safety concerns came about when he heard Largo might build a new station earlier than originally stated. A new station in another location could increase response times, he said.

Competelli maintained he did nothing wrong. His goal, he said, was to bring accurate information to Belleair Bluffs residents.

"My mother brought me up a whole lot better than to stand by and let misinformation go out to the public," Competelli said. "I feel that I was wrongly terminated."

Arbutine saw the memo and Competelli's actions as an attempt to undermine the council's orders that he prepare the department for the transition. And, on Wednesday, two council members — Jack Nazario and Hunt Brand — sided with the mayor. The other two — Suzy Sofer and Joseph Barkley — voted not to fire Competelli.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Belleair Bluffs' fire chief ousted after controversy over deal with Largo 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 5:30am]

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