Pinellas taxpayers could save millions if all fire protection were merged into one agency and officials should take steps to create a countywide fire service, according to the conclusions of a county audit.
The report by Clerk of Court Ken Burke, who acts as the county auditor, estimates that taxpayers could save between $10 million and $39.2 million annually by consolidating service. The cost savings would come from the elimination of "overlaps, duplication of management structure and other procedures" that currently characterize fire delivery by the 19 departments that provide service to the county's municipalities and unincorporated areas.
The report acknowledges, however, that consolidation is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Past attempts have failed because the county and municipalities could not agree on a plan. Any countywide consolidation would also require action by the state Legislature and/or a change in the county charter.
"Our recommendation is to start to address the issue of consolidation," said Bob Melton, director of internal audit in the county clerk's office.
One possible starting point, Melton said, is for the County Commission to begin revamping service in the unincorporated area. Some of those areas get their fire service from independent fire districts funded by property taxes. The county contracts with cities to cover some other unincorporated areas.
It's those contracts the County Commission could most easily change, Melton said.
The release of the fire audit comes days before the County Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing to consider adopting standards regarding costs and performance for the EMS system. That hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.
Although fire and EMS services are delivered by the same people, Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis, head of the county's fire chiefs association, said he does not think the audit will influence Friday's vote. But some of the objections fire chiefs, firefighters and others have to possible changes in the EMS service also apply to consolidation of fire service.
Among those is a fear of job loss. Firefighters have bought an ad in the St. Petersburg Times suggesting that reducing the number of EMS vehicles could endanger lives by increasing response time. Winthrop Newton, head of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, which also represents Lealman firefighters, said increasing response time by a minute or so doesn't sound like a lot unless you're the one who is having the heart attack or whose building is burning.
Newton agreed there is duplication of service at the county level and at the administrative level. Any cuts, he said, should come from those levels.