LARGO — A potential consolidation of the Largo and Belleair Bluffs fire departments could serve as a model of how to amicably and effectively streamline fire services in the county, Largo fire Chief Michael Wallace says.
Belleair Bluffs lost half of its fire services budget — $500,000 — for the coming fiscal year when Belleair decided to end its 10-year contract with the city.
Belleair opted to go with Largo, a move that will save the town about $125,000 a year. With that loss, Belleair Bluffs also entered into talks with Largo for fire services. Belleair residents could approve the move in a Sept. 1 referendum.
"This is an example of regional consolidation," Wallace said. "If it's done right, it would cost less for everybody and the service remains the same and no one loses a job. If we can show that the county is going to pay less and employees are all employed, it will show that it can be done and have a very positive effect on everyone."
Largo would take over Belleair Bluffs' 12-person, single-station department. That move would save Belleair Bluffs about $80,000 a year.
Facing an $18.5 million deficit in its upcoming Emergency Medical Services budget, Pinellas County is looking at consolidation as a cost-saving option.
Starting with the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the county has canceled the final three years of five-year contracts with the 15 municipal fire departments and four fire districts that it contracts with to provide emergency services. The contracts are being renegotiated, said Mike Cooksey, the county's fire division manager.
"A general feeling is that the county ultimately wants to consolidate into one department, but I think they want fewer departments," Wallace said. "They don't know patches, fire trucks, ladders. … They want to be able to buy the service but not with 19 (departments)."
The small, one-station departments are the ones at risk, Cooksey said.
"The decision Belleair made not to contract with Belleair Bluffs shows the vulnerability of the smaller fire departments," Cooksey said. "A half-million dollars is a huge impact in the tough economic times we are in now.
"The county is not out to put any fire department out of business, but it's not the county's position where we can salvage them when they reach the situation they are now."
There are six single-station fire departments in the county: Gulfport, South Pasadena, Treasure Island, Madeira Beach, Belleair Bluffs and Oldsmar.
Safety Harbor, St. Pete Beach and Pinellas Suncoast have two fire stations. Larger departments such as Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Largo would survive and serve as the provider for the smaller communities, Cooksey said.
Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, asked the state's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study the feasibility of a fire service consolidation in the county. No decision has been made on the request, said Kathy DuBose, staff director of the state's Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.
"I'm asking them to take a look at what issues we would have in consolidating so we can get some efficiencies," Frishe said. "Our response time is just top-notch. The training we put our people through is literally some of the best there is. We've got to figure out a way to afford this level of service. "
Belleair Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine Sr. said the economic conditions are pushing the municipalities toward consolidation.
"It's getting pretty interesting and I really think Belleair Bluffs is the beginning of consolidation," Arbutine said. "In these economic times, how can we go to residents and say, 'Let's double the millage rate so we can keep our fire department,' when there is an option to do it cheaper with the same level of service?"
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]