After months of debate, the future of Pinellas County's EMS system should come into sharper focus today. The County Commission is expected to vote on further prioritizing the dispatching of emergency vehicles, changing how taxpayers could pay for the system and experimenting with a lesser role for the private ambulance company that transports patients to hospitals. Those decisions will reveal whether the commission is more interested in saving taxpayers money or protecting the jobs of firefighters.
The challenge remains the same as when County Administrator Bob LaSala brought it into the public spotlight earlier this year: Pinellas' EMS system works well, but it is no longer affordable in an era of declining property tax revenues. The County Commission reluctantly raised the EMS property tax rate by 46 percent this year, and it won't do that again in an election year in 2012. The need to make the system more efficient and cost-effective is obvious.
Yet the public discussion has degenerated into a series of turf wars. LaSala's initial proposal to change the way local fire departments are reimbursed for EMS services was reasonable and would have injected more fairness into the system. But it went up in flames as St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and City Council members complained it would cost the city too much and threatened lawsuits. Of course, St. Petersburg also has the highest average salary and pension costs in the county for firefighters/paramedics at more than $135,000 a year. County commissioners also have felt the heat from fire chiefs and the firefighter unions, who are more interested in protecting jobs than solving the problem.
Even so, the commissioners should easily approve the next step in priority dispatching today. It makes no sense to send both the local fire department and a private ambulance on 911 calls for such minor issues as an earache. Nothing irritates residents more than seeing several emergency vehicles sent on routine calls. The changes would reflect national standards, save money, improve efficiency and ensure more serious situations still get the proper response.
Far less attractive is LaSala's latest attempt to reallocate expenses. Dividing the county into 22 EMS subdistricts so that there could be variable tax rates would be a step backward. That would force communities with higher costs in their fire departments, such as St. Petersburg, to pay higher rates. But it undermines the fundamental concept that this is a countywide system that should provide the same level of EMS service in all areas of Pinellas. The challenge is to better equalize costs as LaSala initially sought, and that should not be abandoned in the heat of battle with the cities and the fire unions. The long-term goal should be to encourage consolidation of the 18 fire districts, not perpetuate their existence.
Most of the attention today, though, is expected to be focused on whether to extend the contract with the private Sunstar ambulance service by three years. Sunstar is offering $11.5 million in savings to the county to keep exclusive responsibility for transporting patients to the hospital. There would be no savings if the county wants to extend the contract but experiment with allowing firefighters to transport patients to the hospital. LaSala recommends taking the savings, and the commissioners should agree. To do otherwise would be to cave into the firefighters and tell taxpayers that spending their money prudently is not the top priority.