After years of mostly benign neglect, the Pasco County Commission is poised to try to rescue its own Fire Department. Commissioners last week indicated a willingness to accept fire Chief Tony Lopinto's pitch for 11 new firefighters, restoring the department to its 2009 staffing. Though the commission must balance the bottom line of the still-developing 2013 budget, Lopinto's reasonable request should not be overlooked. The aim is to curb overtime expenses and to avoid the potential for so-called rolling brown-outs when trucks are removed from service temporarily because of insufficient staffing.
The county has frequently treated the Fire Department as a poor stepchild to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office where a separate constitutional officer can use the bully pulpit to advocate for budget increases. And, even though it is financed with a separate property tax, the fire department has not been immune to the budget constraints facing other county departments.
Three years ago, commissioners cut 26 people and seven vacant jobs from the fire/rescue payroll, but added 15 back a year later. Still, this year, the department burned through its overtime budget in just seven months to maintain adequate staffing. On average, three firefighters each day are being paid overtime. Adding 11 more will resolve the personnel shortage and save about $200,000 in annual overtime.
Lopinto's presentation last week, part of a update to the county's business plan, came at an opportune time. Commissioners have said they will consider approving the so-called rollback property tax rate to make up for declining real estate values and the public has affirmed its support for public safety as a county priority. The county's own citizens survey, conducted by mail, and a scientific telephone poll commissioned by the group advocating for renewal of the Penny for Pasco both identified public safety as a top concern of residents.
If commissioners ultimately decide the county can afford the 11 new firefighters, it won't end the austerity measures. The county has been unable to place ambulance crews at some of its newer stations and plans for an additional station in Bayonet Point have been set aside because the county lacks the resources for the additional firefighters/paramedics.
Future expansions, however, can't be considered until the county works its way back to its where it once stood. Rebuilding the Fire Department is a smart investment and the commission should oblige the chief's request.