Monday, June 18, 2018
Public safety

Fire stations wait it out as county seeks to cut costs

As many as 19 Pinellas Park firefighters, almost a fourth of the fire department's frontline force, could lose their jobs as Pinellas County looks for ways to save money in the unincorporated High Point area near Largo.

County officials, who pay about $2.4 million to Pinellas Park and Largo for fire coverage there, say they want to give those cities, in addition to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, a chance to come up with new, cheaper ideas for providing fire service to High Point.

One possibility would be to consolidate coverage in one department. It's unlikely Pinellas Park, or any city other than Largo, would make that offer — most of High Point lies in Largo's annexation planning area and is likely to end up as part of that city. That makes Largo the most likely to want to take over fire coverage for the entire area. And that could mean firefighter job losses in Pinellas Park.

Losing 19 firefighters would have a far-ranging impact, reducing the quality and availability of both fire and emergency medical services not only in High Point but also in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, said Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis.

"I am not going to say it would be devastating," said Lewis, who is also one of Pinellas Park's two interim assistant city managers. "It certainly would be a tremendous impact."

Lewis said Pinellas Park officials have been meeting with Pinellas County commissioners trying to find a better solution.

Pinellas County has 18 fire departments. Fourteen of those are run by cities and paid for with municipal property taxes and fees. Four of the fire departments are classed as independent districts, which impose their own property taxes to provide fire coverage in their areas of unincorporated Pinellas.

But there are 12 areas of unincorporated Pinellas that look to the county for fire protection. The county has no fire department, so it contracts with cities and districts to provide coverage to those areas. The county levies property taxes, according to the cost in each of these "dependent districts," to provide fire protection.

One of those areas is High Point, north of Pinellas Park and east of Largo. High Point includes Feather Sound, the Pinellas County Judicial Complex and Jail, other county offices and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The county pays Largo about $1.1 million a year to cover the west side of High Point out of its Station 40 and pays Pinellas Park about $1.3 million each year to cover the eastern side out of its Station 36. Pinellas Park fire Station 35 and St. Petersburg Station 13 provide backup fire service and support. Pinellas Park Station 37 provides EMS to the area.

County officials say $2.4 million is too much to pay for fire service in High Point, so they'll ask Pinellas Park, Largo, St. Petersburg and Clearwater to suggest less expensive ways to do the job.

The idea, said Bruce Moeller, director of the county's public safety division, is to "stimulate the competition that resulted in a positive impact in South Pasadena."

Last year, the county got complaints from homeowners in an unincorporated area of south Pinellas about the amount they were paying to South Pasadena for fire service. The county opened the contract up for bids. St. Petersburg won the bid and, this year, the homeowners in that area saw fire taxes drop about 79 percent.

County officials were eager to see if they could repeat the success elsewhere. They chose High Point.

"This has never been bid before," Moeller said. "We're making it as open as possible."

"Open" means the county plans to leave it up to the bidder to make suggestions about ways to cover the area as well as the cost.

"We want to see if there's a better way to do it," he said. "There's all sorts of permutations that could happen."

Under at least one scenario that has Largo bidding for the entire area, Pinellas Park Station 36 may be closed and Largo Station 40 relocated a bit south of its current location. That would make it easier to run all calls from Station 40. But that could be bad news for Pinellas Park's firefighters.

If Pinellas Park loses Station 36, the 11 firefighters and fire inspector who work there would likely lose their jobs. But the area could also lose a station if Largo bids for the entire area, closes 36 and moves Station 40 a bit south, making it easier to run all calls from Station 40.

It could get worse if Largo, or another city, bid EMS as part of the deal. Then the seven firefighter-paramedics at Station 37 — which only runs medical calls — could also lose their jobs. The loss of those 18 firefighters would eliminate about 24 percent of Pinellas Park's 75-member force, which is already running lean, Lewis said.

Moeller declined to comment on the possibility, saying the county had not yet sent out its request for proposals.

Largo Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said he thinks his city will likely bid, but added, "Just because we bid it, there's no guarantee to the county that the price will be less."

Lewis said losing 18 firefighter-paramedics and one inspector would have a worse impact "than most people understand."

The burden of the calls — about 2,000 a year from Station 37 alone — would fall on other stations in the area. And even if Station 40 is relocated, he said, the geography and traffic in the area will make it hard to get anywhere quickly. Response times to both fire and EMS calls could greatly increase.

Residents in the north end of St. Petersburg would also be adversely affected, Lewis predicted. That area includes some of St. Petersburg's largest employers as well as multiple apartment complexes and heavy traffic leading onto the Gandy and Howard Frankland bridges.

The opening of Pinellas Park fire Station 37 several years ago freed up St. Petersburg Station 13 to be more responsive in the Carillon and Gandy areas. It was so successful at improving service, Lewis said, that the county decided to pay the full cost for Station 37. Until then, Pinellas Park had paid part of the costs.

It makes no sense, Lewis said, for the county to consider closing it now.

"If they didn't think it was a value at all, why'd they fund it?"

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

 
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