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East Lake fire commissioners, citing budget cuts, may ax chiefs

EAST LAKE — East Lake fire commissioners are planning to relieve their fire chief and deputy fire chief of their duties, saying they need to downsize and reduce expenses.

But some commissioners also appear to be unhappy with the department's current leaders.

Commissioner Paul Ferreri presented the downsizing plan to the commission at an emergency fire commission meeting Thursday.

"With the reduction in EMS funding and our own taxable base, the only place we can look is in our administrative salaries," said Ferreri, the board's treasurer. "In my judgment, the chief probably is the largest cost component to us."

The fire district has been notified that it may get $250,000 less from Pinellas County for EMS services, a significant hit to its $4.4 million budget. The county has not made final budget decisions, but has projected cuts to other departments as well because of declining revenues. Fire districts provide first-responder EMS services under contract to the county.

"It's pretty clear that the county is really not intending to raise taxes," said Commissioner Mark Weinkrantz, the commission's chairman. "We are acting as a board in a responsible way to have fire and emergency medical care for the residents and to take the opportunity to downsize in a responsible manner."

Chief Jeff Malzone, 53, was on vacation Friday, but in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, he said, "At this time I will not be answering any questions."

Malzone has been with the department since starting as a volunteer in 1982. He was named chief in 2005.

Deputy Chief Steve Rogers said Friday that he was stunned to hear his job was going to be eliminated.

"I'm not looking to leave," said Rogers, 43. "I've been a stellar employee for the 23 years I've been here. I'm entrenched in the schools, in the community, in the business community. I hope something can be worked out. I'm not ready to leave. I have 14 more years to dedicate to this place, and I've lived my life prepared to do that."

Ferreri said Malzone's salary is $106,000 and with benefits, he makes about $160,000 year. But Malzone has three years left on his current contract. Ferreri has suggested the commission make an offer to Malzone: $147,000 to buy out the contract and $40,000 in severance.

Rogers makes $92,000 a year and works without a contract. The commission would offer him $35,000, Ferreri said.

Over a three-year period, the commission would save about $250,000 by eliminating the two employees, Ferreri said.

The commission will take up the matter at a meeting Thursday. Ferreri is hopeful that Malzone will take the offer. If he doesn't, Ferreri said, there may be reasons to terminate Malzone for cause.

Weinkrantz said there has been "some resistance from the chief to institute commission direction." He said commissioners' requests for information from the chief haven't been fulfilled. He also said the chief was asked to stay clear of certain issues that could expose the district to litigation, but he didn't do so. Weinkrantz refused to provide details.

"I am uncomfortable that there is not a good rapport going on" between the chief and the board, Ferreri said. He said the department needs to head in a different direction.

"We can downsize both of them and bring in somebody new with new vision, new leadership and new management," Ferreri said.

A new thought process is also needed, Ferreri said.

"My experience in corporate America is that when things get real challenging economically, we need new thoughts, not the same old, same old," he said. "I don't feel like we are getting any innovation or strategic thinking.

"Do we put out fires? Yes. And we save lives. But it's time to have some strategic thinking and I don't think we are getting strategic thinking out of the current leaders."

Currently, there are three top fire administrators. The plan is to reduce that by one and then pass more work to the three district chiefs. Ferreri said Division Chief Tom Jamison will run the department until a new chief is hired. "I have several people in mind who I think would do a good job," Ferreri said of the next fire chief.

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes.com or 727-445-4174

East Lake fire commissioners, citing budget cuts, may ax chiefs 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 8:53pm]

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