Countywide consolidation of fire services has long been a hot topic in Pinellas, but one that never got traction, even as governments have been forced to reduce spending.
So the news earlier this month that fire chiefs from several beach and near-beach communities have held meetings to discuss ways to consolidate their services came as something of a surprise. And, despite the firing of two of those chiefs for activities related to consolidation, those meetings continue as officials look for ways to deliver services at a lower cost.
If they actually come up with something that works, those communities could set a precedent for the rest of the county. But it's unclear exactly what shape and form consolidated fire services might take. The officials discussing the possibilities don't even have a name for it. Talk to one person, and the concept is a joint powers authority, or JPA. Another says it's "functional consolidation." Yet another, "resource sharing." There might be others.
But officials do seem to agree that they're talking about some kind of sharing of personnel, equipment and/or administrative staff and duties.
Mike Cooksey, the county's fire division manager, said he first heard of the sharing concept during meetings of a countywide committee. The committee, which included county officials, fire chiefs and city managers, was designed to study the revamping of Pinellas' fire and EMS services to make the system more affordable and efficient. The idea of a JPA was broached to the group.
The idea was to divide Pinellas into three to seven JPAs. The fire departments in each JPA would be run under one board appointed by member cities and fire districts. The board would set the budget and the tax rate for the JPA it oversaw.
Although the idea had support from several fire chiefs, the city managers opposed it, said Frank Edmunds of Seminole, who sat on the committee. The city managers, he said, mostly objected to the creation of a board that would establish the tax rate.
Managers thought the board would end up as an unnecessary layer of government and, because it was not elected, be insulated from taxpayers' wishes. Also insulating the board would be the fact that each city/fire district could only appoint one member, which would dilute the city's influence over fire service, Edmunds said.
The idea was dropped, and committee members moved on to EMS issues.
But the concept had taken root and, earlier this month, it was revealed that chiefs from seven communities — Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach, Gulfport, South Pasadena, Belleair Bluffs, Treasure Island and Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue — had held meetings and discussed the formation of an entity called "South Pinellas Fire Rescue," which was described as a public safety improvement district. South Pinellas Fire Rescue, with its appointed oversight board, was a virtual carbon copy of a JPA.
Again, the suggested oversight board and the merger of departments with a subsequent loss of community identity caused city managers to shudder.
"I have never been a proponent of creating a new government entity with taxing authority, such as the proposed public safety improvement district, that would have an appointed board of directors unaccountable to the residents it serves," Madeira Beach City Manager W.D. Higginbotham wrote to the Times in an e-mail. "Such a government entity would strip away each city's authority to set policy and service level for their community; there would be no Madeira Beach Fire Department."
But Higginbotham liked the idea of a "functional consolidation." It's unclear what that might look like, but it could be as simple as sharing personnel or equipment. Higginbotham opened his city's doors to another meeting of several of the chiefs last Tuesday and told them of his support.
As for the chiefs, they're exploring their options, said Dayton Saltsman, South Pasadena's chief. They're focusing first on training, which would seem to be an easy first step and might be done by having one training officer oversee several departments' programs.
"If we can't figure that one out, we may scratch our heads and say, 'We can't do this,' " Saltsman said of "resource sharing."
No one expects anything to happen quickly. That pleases St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield, who said he's willing to consider almost anything except an appointed oversight board. Although Bonfield is open to ideas, he's being cautious. Governance, he said, is going to be a big problem. That and the number of departments that become involved.
"Too many players get involved, it becomes unmanageable," Bonfield said.
Despite false starts and doubts, it appears that some form of consolidation is in the cards — at least on a local level.
"I think everyone needs to come to the table and have an open, honest discussion," South Pasadena Mayor Kathleen Peters said. "We said, 'You know, if not this year, over time, we're going to have to.' The economy is going to dictate this."