The County Commission appears poised to close one fire station and to ask the Legislature to alter the boundaries of two fire districts, a cost-saving measure that some say could be a small step to consolidation of emergency services.
Fred Marquis, interim county administrator, reminded commission members during a workshop Tuesday that they had instructed staff members to look at consolidation and other ways to increase the cost efficiency of Pinellas emergency medical services before the county's contracts with individual fire departments end in 2009.
"This is the easiest one," Marquis said of the proposal to close Fire Station 28 in the Oakhurst area. "All of the others are going to be much more difficult."
County staff members say closing Station 28 and realigning district lines could save taxpayers in the Oakhurst and Seminole areas $1.2-million without affecting the quality of service.
If the proposal is adopted, Pinellas County would withdraw emergency medical funding from 28 and ask the Legislature to shrink the boundaries of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District, which now includes portions of the Oakhurst area on the mainland as well as Indian Rocks Beach. The mainland portion of the district would be absorbed into the Seminole Fire District, which currently covers part of the Oakhurst area. Seminole Fire Station 31 would become the first responder for fire and emergency coverage for all of Oakhurst.
Opponents say the move would eventually bankrupt the Pinellas Suncoast district, which has been on shaky financial footing for years. Opponents and county officials agree the move could also cost some firefighter jobs, although Pinellas staff members say they want to avoid job loss.
"It we lose 28, we're going to lose every one of our firefighters and we're going to be bankrupt," Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Russell Livernois told commission members during a Tuesday workshop.
Livernois said Friday he does not think the proposal will be implemented. The district, he said, is consulting its attorney.
The proposal would directly affect thousands of residents in Indian Rocks Beach and in the Seminole and Oakhurst areas, but its adoption might have wider implications for emergency and fire services in Pinellas County if it heralds an era of consolidation.
Fire chiefs Doug Lewis of Pinellas Park and Mike Wallace of Largo were less sure that the proposal is the first baby step to countywide consolidation of emergency or fire service.
Wallace said he foresees some sort of consolidation in the future because that will likely be the most cost-efficient way to handle the emergency medical and fire service. He said the proposal to close 28 and "recapture the mainland" is a positive move for Pinellas.
St. Petersburg fire Chief Jim Large was away and could not be reached for comment.
County and local officials have long been concerned about the duplication in service between Fire Stations 28 and 31.
They are less than a mile apart and, between the two, ran an average of 6.33 calls per day in 2007. That's fewer than many individual stations elsewhere in Pinellas run. Each has about the same level of staffing — three firefighters per vehicle for fire and EMS first responder calls.
Each has one county-funded paramedic. Station 28 has a ladder truck and 31 has a fire engine.
With a $14-million shortfall in EMS funding in the coming fiscal year, county officials have been looking for ways to cut expenses. Closing either 28 or 31 seemed an easy way to save some money.
Both Pinellas Suncoast and Seminole presented figures showing why they thought their station should remain open. County staff members analyzed the data and concluded that it made more fiscal sense to close 28, contract the Pinellas Suncoast district and enlarge the Seminole district.
Among the savings would be $427,152 in EMS funding that the county is paying to Pinellas Suncoast.
The county could pocket that money rather than give it to Seminole because Seminole is already covering the area and would not have to add any personnel or equipment.
The county also determined residents of the Seminole Fire District would pay lower taxes because the addition of about 2,500 parcels with an estimated taxable value of $417.5-million would increase the tax base while expenses would not go up.
Some of the homeowners in the Oakhurst area who would be moved into the Seminole district would also save money.
Under the current system, property owners there pay Suncoast a flat rate of $190 a year, which is scheduled to increase to $260 in the 2010 fiscal year.
Some of those taxpayers will end up paying less depending on such things as the value of their property and others will end up paying more.