The New York Times reported last week that economic necessity has pushed the neighboring states of Wisconsin and Michigan to work together on everything from sharing bullets for the police to swapping fish to stock their lakes. If two states can choose cooperation over parochialism in the name of efficiency, surely Pinellas County's 25 local governments can overcome their differences and join forces to save money.
One example: the much-needed consolidation of the county's 19 fire departments. In today's economic landscape, it is absurd that Florida's smallest county has so many separate fire departments.
The current debate over county government's effort to restructure Pinellas' expensive and duplicative Emergency Medical Services system has overshadowed the separate issue of consolidating fire departments, but it is time to bring that issue to the forefront. Even Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer and a Democratic candidate for governor, broached the subject when she spoke to the Suncoast League of Cities earlier this month. Remarking on Pinellas' overabundance of fire and police agencies, she hinted that city and county officials should be consolidating services. She's right, and fire departments are the logical place to begin.
The county is carved into 19 fire districts, 15 served by city fire departments and four by independent fire departments. Six of those fire departments are so small they have only one fire station: Gulfport, South Pasadena, Treasure Island, Madeira Beach, Belleair Bluffs and Oldsmar. At a time when even big fire departments are sweating through budget cuts, it is easy to imagine the struggles of the small departments to adequately maintain equipment, training, staffing and salaries.
Economic realities already are providing a shove toward consolidation in several Pinellas communities. The town of Belleair has contracted with the Belleair Bluffs fire department for fire protection for 10 years. But this year, Belleair found a cheaper provider, saving $125,000 a year by hiring the larger Largo Fire Department. Now Belleair Bluffs, with half its annual fire budget gone, is studying whether to let Largo take over its 12-person, one-station fire department. In another case, county officials may ask the Legislature to shrink the boundaries of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District, a small mid-Pinellas agency that has struggled financially, and allow the larger and better funded Seminole Fire Department to take over. The city of Madeira Beach, facing a budget shortfall, is seeking a provider to take over its fire department.
County fire chiefs are absorbed by the EMS debate and would rather avoid a discussion of reducing the number of fire departments. But declining property values and slumping government revenues make this the right time to study consolidation. Eliminate departments and you eliminate duplication of services and multiple layers of administration. The county auditor recently reported that taxpayers could save $10 million to $39 million a year on fire service by consolidating. And more fire departments does not mean better service.
The consolidation of at least some smaller Pinellas fire departments should have been tackled long ago. Now there is a sense of urgency driven by the economic recession, and the opportunity for action should not be wasted.