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Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue fears county's plans cuts to budget

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Pinellas County staff members want to whack almost half a million dollars from Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue's emergency medical services budget.

It's a move that Suncoast fire Chief Rusty Livernois said could have a devastating effect on the department's overall $4.3 million budget.

"It's another way for the county to take money from me to try to make me fold," Livernois said Tuesday.

But county staff members say they have nothing against Suncoast, which serves Indian Rocks Beach, the Redingtons and a small portion of the nearby mainland. It's a simple matter of economics, said Assistant County Administrator James Dates.

The countywide EMS system is facing an estimated $11 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year. County commissioners have already increased ambulance fees to offset some of that, and it's likely taxpayers also will see an increase in the countywide EMS tax rate. Cuts are being made to keep that increase as small as possible.

The County Commission will make the final decision. That could come on July 27, when the commission is scheduled to get the EMS budget.

Commissioners last year cut about $1.3 million from Suncoast's EMS budget. The county said then that the cuts saved money and eliminated overlapping services. In making the cuts, the county eliminated one of the two paramedic positions on Squad 26. This year it proposes to cut the second position, eliminating the squad altogether.

That would save county taxpayers an estimated $484,750, which is about half of Suncoast's total EMS request to the county for the coming fiscal year and a bit more than one-tenth of its entire EMS and fire budgets combined.

In budget terms, a paramedic position is actually 3.4 paramedics, one for each of three 24-hour shifts, plus occasional substitutes, gas and other expenses. A squad is the word used to describe a multi-purpose support vehicle without firefighting capabilities.

If Squad 26 is eliminated, Engines 25 (Madeira Beach), 27 (Suncoast) and 31 (Seminole) would take up the slack in the Redingtons and on Indian Rocks Beach. As backup, a Sunstar ambulance would be permanently stationed in the area.

Livernois said the county intends to take the money from him and give it to Sunstar, a charge that the county denies. Craig Hare, the county's EMS division manager, said Sunstar is only looking for a place to park where the paramedics can get out to stretch their legs during their shift. Otherwise, Sunstar will be paid by those who use its services.

The money that once went to Suncoast, he said, would be savings that countywide taxpayers would see.

Livernois said he is also worried about the quality of service if the proposal goes through. The beach communities, he said, pay a great deal in EMS taxes but get very little back. And it seems they're getting less and less while others get more and more, he said.

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

Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue fears county's plans cuts to budget 07/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 4:45pm]
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