LEALMAN — Making perhaps the strongest public statement yet by an elected official in favor of countywide consolidation, state Rep. Janet Long says the public safety system in Pinellas County drives her crazy and needs to be changed.
"I'm really irritated with the system," said Long, D-Seminole.
Having 19 fire departments and 24 cities with multiple police departments is wasteful and costly, Long said during last Wednesday's meeting of the Lealman Community Association. She reiterated some of her comments during an interview Friday.
Spending money unnecessarily is especially bad in these tough economic times, she said. And there is no need to have multiple departments when they're all delivering the same service.
"A sworn law officer is a sworn law officer. They carry a gun and a badge," Long said. The only dissimilarity between departments is "a different paint job" on their cars.
Similarly, all firefighters/paramedics in the county receive the same training and have the same abilities. The difference there, she said, is some fire districts pay more for the same service than do others.
"It's such a waste. It is such a waste," Long said. "It drives me insane."
Consolidating services, she said, could save millions and "just makes so much sense. ... I can't help that there was poor planning way back when, but we know better now."
Long's comments come at a time when Pinellas County officials are embarking on a study of the emergency medical system. Eight companies have submitted proposals for the study, which is expected to be finished next fall.
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said the winner's marching orders will be to start with a blank slate. That could eventually mean a recommendation that could completely transform the county's current EMS system.
The EMS study has reignited talk of countywide consolidation of fire services. LaSala, who also spoke at the LCA meeting, said he could see some savings if services are consolidated. But, he cautioned, having the county or another entity impose consolidation on cities and fire departments would not work.
Imposing change, he said, would cause consolidation to become a "political football where you've just inflamed special interests."
It's best if the various stakeholders — cities, unions, fire districts — come voluntarily to the table, he said.
That could happen in the near future, he said. The bad economy, which has caused governments at all levels to slash budgets and services, will likely drive everyone to the negotiating table.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.