CLEARWATER — It took more than 21/2 hours of debate and three votes, but Pinellas County commissioners narrowly okayed an agreement to extend the contract with the private company that provides ambulance service.
The deal, passed 4-3, renews the contract with Paramedics Plus for two years with the possibility of a one-year extension. Paramedics Plus agreed to lower its costs by $2 million a year starting with the current year — a total savings of about $6 million. In return, the county agreed to continue its ban on allowing firefighters to take patients to the hospital while the contract is in effect.
But that could soon be a thing of the past. Most county commissioners wanted to explore the concept, and much of the debate centered on the possibility of running a pilot program for fire transport, a move that Paramedics Plus generally opposed.
Pinellas' emergency medical services system has become an increasingly hot issue over the past couple of years as expenses have increased and tax revenues have decreased.
County Administrator Bob LaSala has proposed changing the funding formula for distributing the countywide EMS tax to the 18 fire districts that provide first response service. District and fire officials have criticized the plan as shifting countywide costs to local taxpayers and as reducing the level of service.
Fire chiefs and some firefighters say costs could best be lowered by allowing firefighter/paramedics to take people to the hospital. But LaSala has said a transport proposal is unworkable and will cost more.
Some commissioners wanted to try a pilot program to test the cost and feasibility of fire transport, though they did not like the six-month limitation Paramedics Plus had placed on one of its offers for renewing the contract. They also debated how long the extension should be. Commissioner Norm Roche wanted a one-year extension with the possibility of two one-year renewals.
Commissioners dropped that idea when Ed Armstrong, the attorney representing Paramedics Plus, said his client would not agree to that.
Their final compromise was the two-year renewal with the possibility of a one-year extension to give them a chance to further explore a plan for fire transport.
Roche, Nancy Bostock and Ken Welch voted no; voting yes were Neil Brickfield, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Susan Latvala.