Two Pinellas legislators are poised to force the long-debated issue of consolidating the county's 19 fire departments.
State Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, has asked the Legislature's research arm for a comprehensive study looking at all aspects and costs of consolidating fire service. He also wants the agency to include a study of the county's EMS system in the report.
"This will not be a simple study," Frishe said Tuesday. "I've asked them to look at everything."
That report should be finished by November, in time for Frishe to file a local bill for next year if that's what it takes to make the county's system more efficient and cost effective.
"We have the Rolls-Royce in the world in terms of service," Frishe said. "The problem is, the cost is unsustainable given the tax base."
State Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, said there have already been at least three studies, one in 1991, one in 2003 and one in 2005. Long said she sees no need for another and that she's planning to use the next few months to meet with stakeholders and craft a bill she can introduce in the next legislative session.
"Damn sure I'm introducing a bill," Long said Tuesday. "I'm not interested in another (study). I want to do something meaningful. It's time. It's gobbling up an unbelievable amount of resources. ... If we continue doing what we are doing, we're going to bankrupt our government."
Long said she is unsure what form her proposal might take or how encompassing it might be, but she does plan for it to include both fire and emergency medical services.
"I certainly don't have all the answers," Long said, "but I'm bright enough to know that what we're doing right now is a recipe for disaster."
The prospect of being forced to consolidate services does not sit well with Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis, the head of the county chiefs association. The chiefs have nothing against voluntary mergers. Largo and Belleair Bluffs are holding talks about that now, he said.
But the chiefs have resisted enforced consolidation in the past and would likely do so again in the future, Lewis said. He charged that the push for consolidation is being driven by politicians, not taxpayers, and that Tallahassee should stay out of it.
"I don't have a fire chief yet saying they have an outflowing of people at their (council) meetings saying, 'Let's consolidate,' " Lewis said. "I think you have to let the communities determine what's best for the citizens."
Pinellas' fire and EMS systems are separate but intertwined because both use the same 911 system and firefighters are trained not only to fight fires but also as emergency medical technicians or paramedics. But the funding is different.
Cities levy property taxes to pay for their own fire departments. Some unincorporated areas are set up into special districts that also levy property taxes or fees from their residents. Other unincorporated areas are overseen by the county, which levies property taxes from the people who live there and uses those taxes to pay one or more cities to provide fire service.
When it comes to medical emergencies, the county levies taxes from all Pinellas property owners and then pays the fire departments to provide service. The county also contracts with a company called Paramedics Plus to provide ambulances under the name Sunstar to transport emergency medical cases to hospitals. Those trips are paid for by the person receiving the service and tax money.
Consolidation could mean combining the two systems into one, merging all the fire districts into one, allowing the county to collect taxes for both systems then doling it out to independent and city departments, some combination of those, or something completely different.
Frishe said he promised to see that an independent study was made of the county's fire and EMS systems after a meeting between the county's Legislative Delegation and the County Commission. Past studies, he said, have always been tainted by charges of bias.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or [email protected]