For all the talk of cutting government and reining in spending in these tough economic times, most of the Pinellas County commissioners revealed Tuesday just how shallow their commitment is. When first-term Commissioner Norm Roche sought support to begin consolidating Pinellas' byzantine system of 18 fire departments, his colleagues shut him down. That's not leadership. It's the same kowtowing to parochialism that has left county taxpayers saddled with fire and emergency medical services systems that are too expensive and top-heavy. Pinellas state lawmakers should consider acting on Roche's suggestion, even if the commission won't ask them to do it.
Roche was hoping to persuade his fellow commissioners to ask the Legislature to repeal state statutes that established four independent fire districts in the county: East Lake and Palm Harbor in north county; Lealman in mid county; and Pinellas Suncoast on the mid county beaches. Those four entities, along with 14 other municipal fire departments, provide fire and emergency medical services across the county and frequently come to each others' assistance under mutual aid agreements and the county's EMS system. But there is no countywide system for tracking actual costs or identifying efficiencies in fire service, a point highlighted in a 2010 report by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability.
Roche's idea was to force at least some consolidation by eliminating the independent taxing districts as a first step toward a more countywide structure. That may not be the ideal path to good public policy, but in the face of longtime resistance by public safety agencies to consolidation, it's a valid option commissioners should consider.
Instead, commissioners signaled Tuesday they aren't really interested in tackling that challenge and stirring up emotions in local fire departments. Already facing criticism from various municipal leaders over County Administrator Bob LaSala's efforts to bring discipline to the skyrocketing costs of the EMS system — which may raise taxes more than 40 percent next year — Democrat and Republican commissioners alike brushed Roche's idea aside. Democrat Ken Welch argued it had no political legs; Republicans Nancy Bostock and Susan Latvala said the idea was premature. Republican Neil Brickfield was at least accurate when he called it "provocative."
The political calculation that the fight over EMS funding is tough enough is understandable, but these economic times require even broader vision to question old assumptions. Pinellas County's fire departments are still operating under a system focused on service levels, political boundaries and job preservation rather than cost efficiencies. That may have been sustainable in an era of a growing property tax base that covered increasing operating costs, but that time has passed in Pinellas. Roche is brazen enough to state the obvious: Pinellas has too many fire departments that cost taxpayers too much money. Too bad the rest of the commission is too faint-hearted to start doing something about it.