Electing a new mayor and two new City Council members in St. Petersburg has not changed the city's parochial approach to emergency medical services. City Hall remains as uncooperative as ever in refusing to help make the countywide EMS system more cost-efficient and ensure its long-term sustainability. The City Council's overheated rhetoric Thursday set a bad example for other cities, and it should be more open to compromise on EMS and less protective of the city's bloated, poorly run Fire Department.
To recap, Pinellas County has a countywide EMS system that sends both the local fire department and a private ambulance company on 911 calls. The firefighters-paramedics respond first, and the private ambulance takes patients to the hospital. The system works well, but it is too expensive. The county has kept it running the last several years by using reserves and increasing the EMS property tax rate, but that approach will not work forever.
Yet through a series of private consultants and county proposals, St. Petersburg has fought Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala for more than four years as he has tried to cut EMS costs. The county's latest proposal has a more gradual impact than previous proposals and at least initially would cut St. Petersburg a reasonable $1.1 million over three years. That would be on top of a three-year budget freeze for the entire system, followed by a cap on future increases. But even this is too much for Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council, where too much of the talk at this week's meeting was about threatening lawsuits and asking the Legislature to let St. Petersburg leave the county system. Either approach would be irresponsible, cost the city taxpayers more money and have a negative ripple effect in a county that needs more consensus-building and fewer fiefdoms.
St. Petersburg is exploiting the fundamental flaw in the EMS system: There is no accountability required by the fire departments on the spending side. The county is essentially required to pay whatever the departments bill to EMS — even when the St. Petersburg Fire Department is expensive and mismanaged. St. Petersburg has the highest average salary and pension costs in the county for firefighters/paramedics, and Kriseman's transition team recommended Chief Jim Large be fired. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found last year that for decades firefighters had incredible flexibility to swap shifts with co-workers with no oversight by supervisors by trading hours or paying cash. Large defended the policy, then tightened it only after the newspaper's report. The transition team also concluded the Fire Department has high administrative costs and too few minorities in top jobs, yet Kriseman has failed to act in nearly three months in office.
Council Chairman Bill Dudley complained the city is being bullied by the county on EMS, but St. Petersburg is playing that role. The threats about the city pulling out of the countywide system are just that, and they are not helpful at a time when the city and the county should be working together on the mass transit referendum, caring for the homeless and other regional issues. If St. Petersburg gets away with avoiding efforts to reduce EMS costs, watch for other cities to walk away from a compromise as well.
Here's an idea: If St. Petersburg wants to ask the Legislature to revisit state law creating the countywide EMS system, fine. But instead of letting St. Petersburg run its own EMS system, let's have the Legislature create a countywide fire department that would standardize both fire and EMS service throughout the county. That would end the bickering over who pays for what service, and it would surely be more cost-efficient than St. Petersburg's Fire Department is now.