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Pinellas County Commission, fire service leaders at odds on tax

A battle may be brewing over the funding of paramedic services in Pinellas County.

The county says Amendment 1 and the housing crunch has left it without the cash to fully fund first-responder contracts for 19 fire service agencies throughout Pinellas.

And although the county could cover the shortfall by raising one tax rate, Pinellas officials have said there are no plans to do so.

"The voters have spoken. Amendment 1 has passed," County Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "It would be a terrible disservice and a slap in the face to voters to immediately raise taxes."

But some local leaders say the county is simply reneging on money it promised.

Clearwater, the county's second largest city, vows to fight.

Other local leaders are weighing their options.

"Do we make them do what's right?" Largo fire Chief Michael Wallace asked. "Or do we go along to get along? And will this set a precedent for losses we can't absorb in the future?"

Most of the county's fire service agencies are run by cities. Some are run by independent fire districts. To help pay for paramedic services, the county has contracts with the agencies that share property tax revenue raised by a countywide property tax levied for EMS services.

Last week, however, county officials told fire agencies to expect 2 percent increases for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The five-year contracts, signed last October, provide for a 4 percent increase next year.

The agencies "should be able to manage around a 2 percent difference," said Dick Williams, the county's director of EMS and Fire Administration.

But Largo City Attorney Alan Zimmet told City Commissioners they are on "very firm ground to demand the full 4 percent increase."

Latvala said she was advised that the county was on firmer footing.

"We are providing the funding available, according to the millage rate that exists," she said.

Altogether the agencies will see about $921,000 less than they expected under the terms of the contract.

Some city and fire rescue leaders say the county could provide the full 4 percent by raising the property tax rate slightly or pulling money from reserves.

"They're saying they don't have the intestinal fortitude to raise the millage," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, president of the Pinellas County Mayor's Council. "It's a shell game and we have to hold their feet to the fire."

The EMS property tax rate is about 58 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. To cover the shortfall, the rate would have to go up about a penny and a half for every $1,000 of value.

Raising the rate requires a simple majority vote of the County Commission. The increase would cost less than $2.50 per year for the owner of a home with an assessed value of $200,000 and a homestead exemption.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said there hasn't been a consensus to raise the property tax rate, but he's willing to consider a minor increase or tapping reserves if the cuts will have an impact on public safety.

"I'm willing to look at those things because you can save a few dollars up front, but you pay long-term if you don't have effective services," Welch said.

Woodard said that option wasn't explored because staff was given specific direction not to raise the tax rate.

The county already pulled more than $12-million from EMS reserves to the fund the contracts. It needs the remaining $18.2-million in reserves because next year's property tax revenues don't start flowing in until November, Woodard said.

Largo, for example, was told to expect $3.55-million — about $83,000 less than the contract calls for.

As a result, Chief Wallace will likely put off the replacement of aging defibrillators and other equipment, he said.

St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue is expecting $290,000 less, said rescue division chief William Ward. He also expects to hold off on equipment like defibrillators and rescue vehicles.

Pinellas Park Fire Rescue Chief Doug Lewis said he hopes there will only be a one-year adjustment to the contract.

But Woodard said previously negotiated annual increases may not be sustainable for years to come.

"We need to sit down in the weeks and months to come and start working through this, so we can determine what our post Amendment 1 services are going to look like," Woodard said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

A question of support

Here's how the county's plan to provide less money than expected for paramedic

services will affect the county's three largest cities:

CityNext year's support Expected shortfall
St. Petersburg $12-8-millionAbout $290,000
Clearwater$5.3-millionAbout $125,000
Largo $3.5-million About $83,000

Sources: Pinellas County and cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo.

Pinellas County Commission, fire service leaders at odds on tax 07/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 4:57pm]
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