St. Petersburg officials have further damaged the relationship between the city and Pinellas County — and risked fracturing the countywide emergency medical services system — by quietly proposing state legislation that would let the city set up its own medical transport service. There is no good purpose served by St. Petersburg breaking off from the broader effort to fix problems in the countywide EMS system or being so sneaky about its intentions.
The County Commission, which is also the countywide EMS authority, didn't hear a peep from St. Petersburg about what it was attempting. The first county officials heard about it was in an e-mail from state Sen. Charlie Justice asking the county's opinion of a proposed bill St. Petersburg sent to the local legislative delegation.
The bill would exempt St. Petersburg from a state law that requires anyone who wants to operate a medical transport service to get a "certificate of public convenience and necessity" from the EMS authority. If the bill became law, St. Petersburg could take over transport of emergency and non-emergency patients in the city without the cooperation of the County Commission.
After learning about St. Petersburg's end run, county commissioners voted unanimously to oppose it. County Administrator Bob LaSala, calling the one-page bill "sketchy" and "bizarre," said it had the potential to disrupt Pinellas' EMS service and statewide implications. Throughout Florida, the authority to certify medical transport services is vested in county governments.
The city's action follows several clashes between the county and cities over the EMS budget. Pinellas has an expensive dual-response system. Both fire departments and a private ambulance respond to 911 calls. The fire departments provide advanced life support, and the ambulance transports the patient to the hospital. But the tax-funded system is so expensive it cannot be sustained, so studies are under way to find alternatives. Once those results are in, a period of discussion and negotiation involving the county, the 19 fire districts and importantly, the public, will begin.
Some St. Petersburg officials apparently were not willing to wait for that reasonable process to play out. Yet some St. Petersburg City Council members apparently didn't know the city was submitting a proposed bill to legislators, and they ought to ask Mayor Rick Baker how and why that happened. This week Baker downplayed the whole affair, saying the county overreacted and the bill was not thoroughly vetted because the staff faced a deadline for local bills imposed by the legislative delegation. He doubted legislators would file the bill anyway. But these are the sorts of maneuvers that irritate county officials who should be partners, not opponents, in solving the EMS problem.
Emergency medical service is too important for this kind of game-playing. Pinellas must find a way to deliver efficient and affordable emergency care while remaining true to the public's long-standing goal of an equitable countywide system. Accomplishing that will require creativity, cooperation and communication by all the local governments, including St. Petersburg.