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Uneven slicing of Pinellas pie for 19 fire departments has foes, defenders

Six weeks before next year's budget goes into effect, many local fire departments are questioning the fairness of the county's distribution of EMS money.

Faced with dwindling revenues and escalating costs, county officials decided to look at EMS funding in a new way this year.

They established standards for determining how much of the countywide EMS tax revenue that each of Pinellas' 19 fire departments should receive. The goal was to reduce costs and to make funding decisions fair and consistent across the county.

"I understand the logic behind it," St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said. "Everybody understands the issue of funding and budget cuts, (but) some stations are treated differently than others."

Bonfield points to a chart he made comparing the amount of money collected from the 19 fire districts with the amount each receives from the aggregate pot of EMS money. The tax-rich beach communities are "definite losers," he said.

Properties in St. Pete Beach, for example, have an overall taxable value of about $2.3 billion. The city's property owners pay about $1.3 million into the EMS pot, given a countywide EMS rate of about 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. But they only receive about $783,700 from the EMS pot — about a 61 percent difference.

The Lealman Fire District, on the other hand, one of the poorest areas of the county, has an overall taxable value of about $1.1 billion, which translates into a contribution to the county EMS budget of about $616,400. Yet Lealman receives about $1.9 million for EMS services — 306 percent more than its taxpayers contribute.

It's not just Lealman. St. Petersburg contributes about $8.6 million to the EMS aggregate but gets about $11.9 million, or 139 percent, more than its contribution. Pinellas Park's taxpayers get 130 percent back. Safety Harbor gets 121 percent back; Largo, 105 percent.

A rebuttal

St. Petersburg division Chief William Ward and Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds agree that funding inconsistencies exist, but they say Bonfield's analysis is not a good way to look at EMS funding.

The system is countywide and the money needs to go where there's the most demand, they say. Some of the highest demand is in the areas covered by Lealman, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Largo. That's the midsection of the county with high traffic and a dense population, so the call volume is higher. And those departments — like all in Pinellas — run calls into other areas when needed. Plus, beach residents who travel or work elsewhere may end up using the services of the paramedics in Lealman, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park or Largo.

Those inequities, Edmunds said, are something people have to accept in order to have a unified countywide service funded by a countywide tax.

Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis has his own way of looking at the situation. He divided the money provided to each department by the number of paramedic positions funded. Using his analysis, St. Petersburg was the big winner — 22 positions (each consisting of three shifts), each funded at about $541,000. Pinellas Park was at the bottom with seven positions, each funded at about $370,000. Those figures include everything that was funded, not just salaries, but Lewis said it does say something about inequities in pay and benefits among departments and the wisdom of making taxpayers from one place pay for high salaries and benefits elsewhere.

Less tax revenue

Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer said the inequities have existed since the county first unified EMS services. And, for a long time, he said, the county paid a fixed amount to each department with an annual cost-of-living increase. The departments chose how to spend that money.

That worked as long as property values kept going up. But with the advent of Amendment 1 and the tanking economy, things changed radically.

And will continue to. The county is conducting a study of EMS and hopes the results of that will help iron out future inequities.

But St. Petersburg's Ward said the answer may lie in breaking the mold, doing things differently. One example, he said, could be to let the fire departments provide transportation to hospitals.

But, even so, he said, inequities will always exist as long as there are 19 departments with different pay and benefit structures.

"I don't know how to get completely around that other than bring everything under one umbrella, which would be a daunting task," Ward said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Uneven slicing of Pinellas pie for 19 fire departments has foes, defenders 08/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 11:41am]
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