Pinellas County commissioners appear poised to extend a contract with a private company to provide ambulance services, but want to make sure they can wiggle out of it if they find a less costly, more efficient way to provide emergency medical service to residents.
The board also agreed to have a consultant study the county's EMS system and make suggestions on possible changes, big or small.
The discussion at last Tuesday's workshop also contained hints that Pinellas commissioners are interested in changing more than the EMS service. The county's fire service could be next on the list.
"I do want to see a path to get us to the second piece, which is the fire piece," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "That's the most contentious piece."
The idea of consolidating fire or EMS services in Pinellas has been batted about at least since the 1990s, but never gained traction.
Many of the cities have fought the idea, preferring to hang onto their own departments and autonomy.
That may have changed.
The county and most municipal governments are hurting for funds as a combined effect of Amendment 1 restricting property taxes, the recession, plummeting home values and reduced sales tax revenue. As the pinch has become harsher, governments have looked for ways to cut spending.
Some of those cuts are coming in the EMS system, which, the county says, is facing an $18 million shortfall. That's brought a renewed interest in consolidation and the possibility of cutting costs by merging services or taking other measures.
One of those measures involved renegotiating the contract with Paramedics Plus, the company that contracts with the county under the name Sunstar, to provide ambulance service.
Mark Postma, who oversees the Sunstar contract for Paramedics Plus, says his company has never seen a profit from Pinellas. However, the company agreed to cut the amount it charges for a hospital trip from $237 to $224 and to buy 10 new ambulances, bringing the fleet up to 74.
In return, the county would agree to extend the revised contract for three years when it ends Oct. 1.
That's an idea commissioners liked, but they wanted to make sure they could get out of it if they found a better option in the meantime.
A vote is scheduled at the commission's July 21 meeting.