Like a shortsighted spendthrift who uses up his savings rather than living within his means, the Pinellas County Commission has decided to burn through a big chunk of its emergency medical services savings account next year instead of making all the cuts it could to balance the EMS budget. That may make some EMS workers happy, but it keeps taxpayers on the hook for an inefficient system that just costs too much. It's time for fire districts to stop stamping their feet, time for county commissioners to stop making political decisions and time for Pinellas residents to accept reality: If the county's expensive EMS system isn't modified soon, it will collapse under its own weight.
The county, which contracts with 18 cities and independent fire districts to provide EMS service, faced a shortfall of $9.6 million in the $41.2 million EMS budget for 2010-2011. The commission made a few cuts but planned to close the remaining gap with a 17.6 percent EMS tax rate increase that would just perpetuate the system's excesses and inefficiencies. The county staff suggested the commission could save an additional $451,000 by eliminating one paramedic position in the unincorporated Lealman fire district and moving another position, with no decline in service.
But when it came time for a vote Tuesday, a majority of the commission shelved the tax increase and also declined to make the Lealman changes after being heavily lobbied by that fire district. They chose instead to take all of the $9.6 million needed to balance the budget out of the EMS reserve fund, leaving only about $10 million in the fund. It was a political decision, and it is likely to spark a backlash from other fire departments that previously cut their budgets to accommodate requests to trim expenses.
If county commissioners lack the political will to change two positions in one fire district, there is little hope they will summon it to lead a campaign for change throughout the county. Remodeling the countywide EMS system to fit today's financial realities will be one of the toughest challenges Pinellas County has faced, and battle lines are being drawn.
Voters who approved a countywide EMS system in the 1980s could not have foreseen how the system design, costs, politics and legal entanglements would make it such a burden. Some fire departments now are dependent on county EMS funds to prop up their fire functions. Unionized firefighter/paramedics don't want to give up their lucrative contracts that in some cases are giving them pay raises while other government workers are getting pink slips. County commissioners fear losing union support if they cut jobs and voter support if they raise the EMS tax. And St. Petersburg has threatened legal action if the county strays from a 1989 court ruling that said the county must pay municipal fire departments' "reasonable and customary" costs for EMS service. It's time to revisit exactly what that vague language means.
Time is running out for commissioners, fire departments and residents to get realistic and work together on a new, affordable EMS model. Draining reserves to prop up the current system just delays the inevitable.