Faced with the specter of a massive budget deficit in EMS funding, county officials decided to renegotiate EMS contracts with cities and fire districts to slash expenses.
But, instead of across-the-board cuts, the county will give at least six agencies more money next year than they got this year — an eyebrow-raising result in this era of tight budgets and decreasing tax revenues.
"There were some agencies that were underfunded and we made those right," said Craig Hare, the county EMS director.
The rest, he said, were seen as overfunded when the county's new rules were applied. The rules, adopted last spring, established a list of items the county would pay for. The goal was to put all 19 fire departments on an equal footing when it came to being paid to provide EMS services. Equalizing costs meant adjustments up and down.
"No one is completely happy and no one is completely upset," Hare said.
But some, like St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield, are questioning the county's methods and conclusions.
"I understand the logic behind it (but) some stations are treated differently than others," Bonfield said.
Bonfield's city was especially hurt by the county's application of the rules: Money for six paramedic positions was eliminated. St. Pete Beach has decided to pick up the tab for three of them, but that means three positions will be lost. That's one paramedic per 24-hour shift. One of those positions was vacant, therefore two paramedics will lose their jobs, he said.
The rationale behind the cuts was that the number of paramedic positions was not justified by the low number of emergency calls. But Bonfield questioned whether the county had adequately studied the effect on response times of the cuts to his, and other, agencies.
Pinellas officials saw the need to do something to fix EMS funding when they projected there would be an $18 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year caused by dropping property values, the effect of Amendment 1 and a tanking economy.
County commissioners indicated they did not want to increase the EMS tax rate of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. Instead, they canceled EMS contracts with the cities and fire districts, established the new cost standards and had each agency submit a line by line budget. Then, they individually negotiated with each to come to a final price for the next year while a more complete EMS study is done. Those contracts will not become final until after the county and each agency's elected officials vote on them.
The $18 million shortfall estimate was later revised to $12 million when county officials looked more closely at revenue from ambulance fees and found it to be about $6 million more than previously thought. The county also renegotiated the contract with Paramedics Plus, the company that runs Sunstar, to save about $2.4 million. The remainder of the cuts came from such places as the medical director's office as well as the approximately $3.1 million in savings from the EMS contracts.
The county also took the opportunity to push fire departments a bit farther down the road to consolidation. It eliminated EMS funding to Fire Station 28, which is run by Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue. The reason: The station is close to another run by Seminole. The county says Seminole can take over the EMS service for Station 28 without affecting response times. Seminole would get no more money than it receives now and the county would save the $770,000-plus it is giving to Pinellas Suncoast.
The county at first suggested cutting units from Palm Harbor and East Lake but backed off when it found response times would suffer. Instead, it upped the funding to both those agencies.