A state agency is poised to recommend that the Legislature create a board to oversee fire and emergency medical services in Pinellas to better keep track of costs.
The Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability may also recommend that the county be given more freedom to bid out fire service in unincorporated areas as a way to equalize costs and save money.
Right now, some unincorporated areas are served by independent fire districts that levy taxes, but the tax rates vary from place to place. Other unincorporated areas are covered by city fire departments, which contract with the county. Again, different cities charge varying amounts for service. Overall, the county, cities and fire districts spent about $157 million on fire and EMS services in the 2008-09 fiscal year, according to Pinellas County figures.
The proposed recommendations come in a draft report from OPPAGA, the Legislature's research arm. The report, issued this month, is making the rounds of fire chiefs, cities and the county for comments before a final report is written later this year.
"It doesn't get as specific as I had hoped," said state Rep. Jim Frishe, R-Belleair Bluffs.
But, Frishe said, the draft clearly shows what most people have known for years — there's no way to trace costs now in part because the overall expense is divided among 18 independent departments.
"We have no cost efficiencies whatsoever," Frishe said. "The service level has never been the issue. The service level is great. How we pay for it, though, is the issue. (The current system) is unsustainable."
Frishe and state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, asked that OPPAGA study the county's fire and EMS system. They hoped the state agency would come up with a definitive answer about the wisdom of consolidating fire and EMS services. They were also looking for guidance on how to consolidate if that seemed to be a worthy idea.
The two lawmakers requested the study last year after the Pinellas Legislative Delegation was asked to change the boundaries of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District so that Seminole could take over first-response delivery to part of the district. The delegation chose to do nothing until OPPAGA issued its report.
The draft fell short of recommending consolidation, but it says Pinellas needs to do something to get a better idea of costs and service levels. The board that OPPAGA envisions would have representatives from all stakeholders — the county, cities and independent fire districts.
Long seemed a bit frustrated with the proposal, saying the county has discussed and studied consolidation since the 1970s, and nothing has been done.
"It always comes to an impasse," she said. "Why? Because the agendas are different."
Differences of opinion and territoriality can be seen in early responses to the draft report.
The county Fire Chiefs Association criticized the report, saying the county is already tracking money and that it would be "difficult for a city or special district to give up its responsibility, accountability and the liability for fire protection planning to an external board or authority if (that board's) recommendations were mandatory."
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, however, welcomed the suggestion, saying, "Creating a planning authority with representatives from municipalities, independent fire districts and county government governed by the Board of County Commissioners has great potential to address the short- and long-term issues we are facing with fire service."
Long said both are out of touch with what taxpayers want. The Legislative Delegation, she said, sent out a survey asking voters about consolidation, among other things. About 1,000 have been returned so far.
"Almost 99 percent of people are saying yes (to consolidation)," Long said. "So, people get it. It's the elected officials that don't. I would venture to say that's a very compelling argument to work on a plan that could make a difference."
A county-sponsored study is expected to be released this coming fall, but Long said it's time to act.
"Ultimately, the Legislature is going to have to take some action," Long said. "I don't know how the delegation can not address this issue. I think it would be irresponsible not to address it."
Reach Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.