CLEARWATER — County commissioners ignored the pleas of fire chiefs and city officials Friday by voting to put into place a framework for the way fire departments deliver emergency medical services.
The final unanimous vote came as no surprise. Commissioners early on signaled their impatience with requests that they delay the vote because fire chiefs and others had not had sufficient time to study the potential impact of the changes.
The two resolutions were the product of a committee of several city managers and county staff members. Fire chiefs were not included and the final drafts were released just three days before the vote.
But commissioners reminded fire and city officials of the need to trim $18 million from the county's EMS budget.
"Since a year ago, we all knew this was coming," Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said. "Here we are again, it's the same thing."
Pinellas collects property taxes to provide EMS to all county residents, then pays each of the 19 local fire departments to deliver some of that service.
But Amendment One and plunging property values have left the county in the red. This year, it took $14 million out of savings to balance the EMS budget. Next year, the county predicts it will be $18 million short unless it raises taxes or streamlines services.
The two resolutions passed Friday were a first step to making the fire emergency medical service more cost efficient.
One establishes the response time that fire departments must meet when going to medical calls. This could lead to the shifting of resources to standardize response time.
The second item sets the rules the county will use to decide how much to pay each department. Each would have to present line-by-line budgets that specify how the money would be spent.
Commissioners brushed aside worries that response time and level of service would suffer, saying they were merely making official the standard the county has required of fire departments: That response times must be within 7 1/2 minutes on at least 90 percent of the calls. The average response time now is much shorter at 4 1/2 minutes.
"We are not looking at reducing services," Harris said. "We have elderly parents. We have grandkids. We dial 911 also."
Said Commissioner Ken Welch: "If the data does show a significant increase in response times, I will not support it. (Response times) will not change."
Tish Elston, St. Petersburg's deputy mayor, said she worried the framework would limit the flexibility of funding when the fire departments begin negotiating with the county.
But commissioners said each department will be dealt with individually to set a fair price for emergency medical service.
Now, county staff will study proposals fire officials brought to the commission Friday. They also will continue individual meetings with fire departments to discuss budget details. The process must be complete no later than August, when the commission is scheduled to pass the EMS budget.