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Consolidate and save, county consultants say

Pinellas County taxpayers could save $20.3-million each year _ that's dinner out for every household in the county _ by consolidating some government services, a consultant reported Tuesday.

Some of the recommendations contained in the Pinellas County Government Services Improvement Study likely will meet with little resistence, such as standardizing the forms builders must fill out in order to get a permit. Currently, most local governments each use different forms.

But taxpayers _ and some government officials _ may find some of the recommendations a little hard to swallow.

MGT of America, which spearheaded the consolidation report for the Pinellas County Commission, recommends abolishing the Pinellas Planning Council, which coordinates land use planning and growth management countywide. MGT also recommends consolidating some police departments and creating a single fire district. There are currently 26 separate authorities.

Consultants presented their findings to a generally receptive County Commission, which agreed to forward the report to the newly formed Charter Review Commission. The review board meets every six years to suggest changes to the county's Home Rule Charter.

"You know, we all get letters every day from people who say "where's my tax money?' Now, we can show them," said Commissioner Charles Rainey, a strong advocate of consolidating services. "The biggest criminal in Pinellas County is duplication."

Indeed, "duplication" was the buzzword of the day as commissioners heard a laundry list of proposals designed to cut waste from county and municipal services.

If the consultants' predictions are accurate, each county taxpayer could save three-quarters of a mill in property taxes, said County Administrator Fred Marquis. A mill is equivalent to $1 in tax for every $1,000 in taxable assessed valuation.

That translates into about $37.50 for the owner of a $75,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption.

Ed Perrine, MGT's vice president, said the lion's share of savings would come from streamlining police protection and fire services in Pinellas. About $15.2-million of the anticipated $20.3-million savings would come from cutting fat from the county's police and fire departments, Perrine said.

But convincing voters may not be easy. For instance, consultants recommend closing seven fire stations in Pinellas, one station each in Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Indian Rocks, Kenneth City, the Redington beaches, Safety Harbor and South Pasadena.

In addition, consultants suggest eliminating "first response" paramedic services at five stations, including one each in Belleair Bluffs, Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Beach, Safety Harbor and South Pasadena.

The fire stations simply are not necessary, consultants report. A fire station in Kenneth City, for example, logged 84 hours of fire fighting and no hours of emergency medical service in 1990 _ out of 8,760 hours that the station was staffed, the report states.

Abolition of the planning council would mean that the state and county commission would have the only authority over land use changes on the peninsula, other than cities themselves.

David Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council, said he was not surprised by the consultants' recommendation that the planning board be abolished. "I'm not surprised because the consultant had a three-minute conversation on the phone, asking what our budget was and from where we derived authority," Healey said.

The report was "very transparent and very superficial," said Healey, who listened to the presentation Tuesday. "They totally failed to understand what we do, as distinct from the cities.



. We have 25 separate entities, each going their own way."