Budget realism is slowly overcoming parochialism in Pinellas County, finally making it safe for officials to talk publicly about whether the county's 24 municipalities ought to consolidate more of their public safety functions. Open-minded, unemotional discussion about consolidation of police, fire and emergency medical services in Pinellas is long overdue.
With local government revenues continuing to plummet and budget cuts now impacting all services, including public safety, city officials are conceding they may have no choice but to consolidate some costly police and fire departments. And they are making those comments publicly, though the idea remains controversial among some city residents, police officers and firefighters who argue, without hard evidence, that only their own city department can adequately serve their needs.
The brainstorming is not confined to police and fire service. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, for example, also has made overtures to nearby smaller communities to provide other services such as fleet maintenance for a nominal cost. Such approaches could save smaller cities money and keep more St. Petersburg city workers employed.
Meanwhile, broader discussions about fire and EMS already have progressed beyond whether consolidation is needed to how to accomplish it. While there seems to be little interest in creating one countywide fire department, officials are exploring the idea of dividing the county into a few districts, each served by a regional fire department. The number of districts could range from two — St. Petersburg and the rest of the county — to half a dozen or more. That approach is worth exploring, since it would allow the largest and best equipped of the current municipal fire departments to be retained.
The shortage of cash already has prompted limited fire department consolidations, with a few small cities closing stations and contracting with larger fire departments for service. There also has been a gradual reduction over the years in the number of municipal police departments. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office now has contracts to patrol half of Pinellas' cities in addition to the unincorporated county.
Nevertheless, some observers were surprised when the county's second largest city, Clearwater, which has a large and well-regarded police department, recently asked the sheriff how much it would cost for his deputies to take over policing there. City officials said they had no real interest in shuttering their police department, but even asking the question indicates how much the ground has shifted. Clearwater faces a $7.6 million budget shortfall in 2011 after three previous years of budget cuts. Sheriff Jim Coats' recent offer to deliver the same level of service for $8.2 million a year less has Clearwater officials reviewing his proposal and crunching numbers.
Consolidation eliminates duplication of services and brings savings through efficiencies of scale. In Pinellas, it could save millions of tax dollars, preserve other popular city programs that are being decimated by budget cuts, and delay tax increases. Previous conversations in Pinellas about consolidation often have failed because emotion overwhelmed the facts. Now financial realties are forcing a more pragmatic look at the bottom line.