When someone dials 911 in Pinellas County and complains of nervousness, hiccups or an earache, generally both the local fire department and a private ambulance show up. To become more efficient and save money, the county wants to send only an ambulance. St. Petersburg wants to keep sending both vehicles and opposes the widely accepted concept of priority dispatching. That sums up the debate over changing the Pinellas EMS system, where county officials offer a far more enlightened approach toward reducing costs than St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and most members of the City Council.
A discouraging nine-hour meeting between county and city officials Monday produced no grand understanding on how best to cut EMS costs without compromising service. But it was not without its moments. It spotlighted the financial bind facing the system, which forced a conservative County Commission to raise the countywide property tax rate for EMS by 46 percent this year. Reserves are dwindling, another deficit looms in 2012-13, and commissioners made clear they will not vote for another large property tax rate increase.
The rare joint meeting also revealed the contrasts between the elected county and city officials, at least on EMS. While county commissioners are interested in big ideas and creative solutions, the mayor and most City Council members are obstructionists who are more interested in threatening lawsuits and protecting jobs at St. Petersburg firehouses regardless of the cost to taxpayers. When a County Commission that just voted to take fluoride out of the drinking water is the more progressive leader, that's saying something.
Foster refused to acknowledge the current EMS system is not sustainable, despite a mountain of objective evidence to the contrary. The mayor who avoids property tax increases in St. Petersburg promoted another significant property tax increase for EMS — for the County Commission to approve, of course. Neither Foster nor City Council chairman Jim Kennedy showed much interest in making more efficient a system in which St. Petersburg has the highest average salary and pension costs in the county for firefighters/paramedics at more than $135,000 a year. Council member Wengay Newton was little more than mouthpiece for the firefighters union headed until last month by his brother, who sat in the audience, and recklessly claimed the county's proposed changes would endanger lives. There was even unconstructive speculation about St. Petersburg leaving the countywide EMS system, which would be a mistake for the city and the county.
Despite St. Petersburg's threats to sue if the county pursues efficiencies that would cost the city $7 million in EMS tax dollars, the county should continue to push for changes. It should continue to push for better prioritizing of emergency calls, which already has saved thousands of runs and will eventually reduce the need for personnel and equipment. County Administrator Bob LaSala has been unfairly criticized for his good faith effort to change the way fire departments are reimbursed for EMS calls. He has shopped the plan throughout the county, and even a less aggressive version would be a positive step. The Pinellas legislative delegation also ought to consider legislation that would amend state law and make it easier for the county to manage the system and harder for St. Petersburg to hide behind 22-year-old court orders that do not reflect today's economic realities.
Pinellas County's EMS system works well but is inefficient and no longer affordable. The county is looking for reasonable countywide solutions. St. Petersburg is looking out for its firefighters instead of its taxpayers.
This editorial has been revised to reflect the following correction: St. Petersburg has the highest average salary and pension costs in the county for firefighters/paramedics. An editorial Wednesday made a different comparison. Also, the editorial incorrectly referred to City Council member Wengay Newton's brother as the union president for city firefighters. His brother was replaced as union president last month.