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Fire service consolidation debate fires up Belleair Bluffs

No one expected the road to fire consolidation to be easy, but it may prove to be more brutal than expected if the battle in Belleair Bluffs is any indication.

The Belleair Bluffs City Council has authorized a Sept. 1 referendum for voters to decide whether to eliminate the Fire Department and turn over control to Largo. It would be the first voluntary step to fire consolidation in Pinellas County. When it was proposed in May, Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said the deal was an example of friendly, effective consolidation.

But the reality has been radically different as consolidation collided with small-town politics. On Wednesday, the Belleair Bluffs council fired the city's fire chief during a hastily called meeting that saw the mayor accused of deliberately sabotaging the Fire Department and trying to profit from the proposal.

"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 back to 2007. At the time, the Largo Fire Department managed the Belleair Bluffs department, an arrangement reached after the Belleair Bluffs chief left.

The idea seemed a good one. 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, as chief. 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 loss of the contract was a devastating hit to Belleair Bluffs' $1.3 million fire budget.

The bad news didn't end there. Pinellas County then said it would no longer give Belleair Bluffs $400,000 in EMS funding.

Belleair Bluffs had two choices: Raise taxes or kill the department.

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.

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" because it could "provide much more equipment for less money."

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 wrote a memo Monday raising issues that included 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 has not changed.

One reason might be the employment package Largo offered Competelli after June 30: an entry-level, code officer at $38,000 a year, less than half the $85,000 he was making as Belleair Bluffs' chief.

Competelli said Thursday that had nothing to do with his change of heart. The safety concerns came about when he heard Largo might build a new station sooner than expected. A new station in another location could increase response times, he said.

Arbutine saw the memo and Competelli's actions as an attempt to undermine the council. He asked the council to fire Competelli. Two members agreed, giving him the majority vote.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Fire service consolidation debate fires up Belleair Bluffs 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 4:30am]
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