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In St. Petersburg proposal, firefighters trump ambulances for EMS

ST. PETERSBURG — This city's leaders have proposed sweeping changes to the way emergency medical services are delivered as a way to get a grip on costs.

The proposal would basically banish Sunstar ambulances from St. Petersburg, whose firefighter/paramedics would take over all emergency medical transportation.

St. Petersburg would get the money for taking people to the hospital and would also receive the property tax money that its residents currently pay to the county.

The county, which oversees emergency services, would also pay a one-time fee to the city so it could set up the system.

In return, Pinellas County would save more than $4 million by keeping some of the property tax money that now flows to St. Petersburg. The county is dealing with an expected $18 million shortfall in the EMS system in the coming fiscal year.

St. Petersburg made its proposal Tuesday during a meeting between the City Council and County Commission. The meeting was designed to see if the two could agree on a solution to the budget woes plaguing both the county and the city.

"We have a full appreciation of what the county is up against," Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said Wednesday. "Everybody understands what we're up against. Everybody wants to find a solution."

But Mark Postma, chief operating officer of Paramedics Plus, the company that contracts with the county to run the Sunstar ambulance service, said he does not think the solution lies with banishing his company from the city.

Paramedics Plus/Sunstar provides exceptional service for a reasonable price, he said.

"We look forward to serving the people of St. Pete for a long time to come," Postma said. "We think we've done a great job since we've been here, and our record speaks for itself."

The county has suggested saving EMS money by shifting some resources and setting guidelines for how much it will pay each of the county's 19 departments.

But St. Petersburg and some other cities have doubts about the county's proposal, saying it could mean, among other things, that emergency personnel will not be able to answer calls as quickly.

St. Petersburg says its plan will better serve its residents as well as save the county money. Currently, Pinellas County pays St. Petersburg about $13 million each year from property taxes to provide emergency services.

Under the city's proposal, the county would have to give St. Petersburg only the property taxes paid by the city's residents — about $8.2 million. St. Petersburg also wants an estimated $1.4 million as a one-time payment to set up the new system.

City and county officials agreed to look more closely at both proposals as well as a hybrid plan suggested by county Commissioner Neil Brickfield.

Brickfield suggested allowing St. Petersburg to transport true emergency cases while Sunstar takes care of nonemergencies, such as nursing home patients who need to go to the doctor or hospital.

St. Petersburg also plans to go ahead with a lawsuit to stop the county from implementing its plan. But Elston said the filing will merely keep the city's options open. Right now, St. Petersburg has no intention of actively pursuing the case.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

In St. Petersburg proposal, firefighters trump ambulances for EMS 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 4:30am]
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