Despite controversy, officials still considering merging fire services

While many officials across Pinellas were talking about consolidating fire services, chiefs from seven beach and near-beach communities were meeting behind closed doors to find a way to merge their departments.

The doors to those meetings were blown open last week when Madeira Beach City Manager W.D. Higginbotham dismissed fire Chief Derryl O'Neal because of an e-mail he wrote to some Belleair Bluffs residents about those talks. Higginbotham said O'Neal had acted without his knowledge and had overstepped his bounds.

The Belleair Bluffs fire chief, Pat Competelli, who was also involved in the closed-door discussions, had been fired two weeks earlier. Competelli was accused of insubordination for, among other things, writing an e-mail objecting to the proposed dissolution of that city's fire department. The Belleair Bluffs council has suggested contracting with Largo for fire service. Largo already provides Belleair Bluffs with emergency medical services.

The concept of consolidating the county's 19 fire departments into one has been a contentious topic since at least the 1990s. Much of the resistance has come from cities and communities that want to retain control of their fire delivery and the community identity provided by independent departments. But as budgets have gotten tighter and the county has become more willing to push the issue, some communities have started to rethink the idea.

That's what happened on the beaches, said Treasure Island City Manager Reid Silverboard.

"This isn't a new idea. ... It just didn't start suddenly," Silverboard said Friday. "From my standpoint, it is better that we have a say in our destiny in terms of the level of service we provide as well as the cost of service."

Silverboard said city managers from other beach communities, notably St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach, seemed to agree with him. Silverboard said he was willing to have his fire chief, Charlie Fant, meet with others to discuss the issues.

"Absolutely, I knew (about the talks), and I encouraged him to start looking at the possibility of consolidation," Silverboard said. "The conversation I had with the chief (was), if this is coming down the line, it is better to look at it and be in the driver's seat rather than have it imposed on us."

It's unclear how many meetings Fant had with O'Neal, Competelli, and the chiefs from Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue, St. Pete Beach, Gulfport and South Pasadena. But the talks were apparently successful. O'Neal sent out an Aug. 10 e-mail to the chiefs and city managers (but not to Higginbotham) with a proposed press release detailing a five-year plan to form something called "South Pinellas Fire Rescue." Higginbotham later found an organizational chart for South Pinellas Fire Rescue on O'Neal's desk.

The gist of the plan was for the seven agencies to share personnel and equipment for five years and, at the end of that time, merge into one district with one chief. It would be run by a board appointed by those who joined in.

The e-mail caught people by surprise.

St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said he received the e-mail and thought, "Whoa, wait a minute, guys, you're getting a little ahead of yourself here."

Silverboard agreed. "The 'press release,' that was news to us."

He, Bonfield and Higginbotham traded e-mails saying it was too early to make the plans public. Among other things, they said, the three needed to talk with their elected officials.

Before that could happen, both Competelli and O'Neal were fired and the "plan" became public.

Also taken by surprise was the county, which oversees fire service in South Pasadena.

"We had not been involved in that or even aware of it," said Mike Cooksey, the county's fire division manager. "I have since seen ... the information."

Cooksey declined to guess how Pinellas officials would react to the concept of consolidating a portion of the county. The cities, he said, might not need the county's approval as long as the deal did not involve any county-controlled areas. The initial sharing of personnel and equipment, for example, could likely be done among the cities themselves by contract. But the county would have to weigh in for South Pasadena to be included.

And the Legislature would likely have to become involved if a new taxing district was formed, Cooksey said. A voters' referendum might also be in the cards.

Despite the firings, controversy and possible future hurdles, the idea of consolidating fire service on the beaches is not dead.

There's "absolute merit" to the idea, Bonfield said.

Despite controversy, officials still considering merging fire services 08/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 7:32pm]

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