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East Lake Fire budget plan is questioned

The leader of one of East Lake's two civic groups has written a letter to Pinellas County officials sharply questioning the proposed budget for East Lake Fire & Rescue.

The cost of operating the department "will keep rising unless some other method of providing service is instituted," wrote Citizens Action League president Agnes Tillerson.

The department's chief says he doesn't know how to answer Tillerson's questions.

"I don't know where or how she arrived at her figures, so it's tough for me to comment on them," Chief Ron Taylor said Tuesday. "But as far as I'm concerned, they're not correct."

But County Fire Coordinator Dwaine Booth, who served as East Lake's interim chief last year, said Tillerson has raised some legitimate issues.

Tillerson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The department's current budget totals $828,170. The department's proposed budget for next year is $1.2-million. The increase is partly due to the opening of East Lake's second fire station, scheduled for August, which will require hiring more firefighters as well as paying off a mortgage.

The higher budget probably will require some kind of increase in the tax rate, Booth said. The department is asking for a budget boost of 45 percent, while the taxable value of land in East Lake rose just 4 percent, Booth said.

"If their budget goes through the way they submitted it, there absolutely will be a tax increase," Booth said. "But we will be working with them to modify that increase."

Last year the department asked for $1-million and the Pinellas County Commission, which must approve the department's budget and tax rate, reduced that by $200,000 and reduced the tax rate by 10 percent from the previous year.

Despite those cuts East Lake Fire & Rescue is one of the most expensive departments in the county to operate because of its size and the size of the area it covers, which stretches from the Pasco County line to Oldsmar and from Lake Tarpon to the Hillsborough County line.

And the increase the department has requested for next year is the largest one sought by any department, Booth said.

In a two-page letter sent to Booth, two county commissioners and County Administrator Fred Marquis, Tillerson said her civic group is "not denigrating the services provided by East Lake Fire & Rescue. The present service is very satisfactory."

But the cost of the service is not. Among other things, Tillerson questioned the need for the second fire station being built on Keystone Road.

"Why could this district not have been provided with mutual aid from Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs, Pasco and/or Hillsborough without building a new fire station and furnishing it with expensive duplicative machinery?" she asked.

The answer is time, Booth said. Right now the quickest response to emergency calls in the north end of East Lake is eight to 12 minutes, he said, and that's just too long. The new station will reduce that time to under five minutes, he said.

"If you're going to have any success at all with people with a heart attack or a head injury, you've got to do better than eight minutes," he said.

Tillerson also questioned the inclusion of a 6 percent increase in salaries, which she said was "more generous than any profitable business practice that we are aware of."

Taylor said the increase is 5.6 percent, not 6, and is required by a three-year contract signed with the firefighters' union in 1991.

In the letter, Tillerson also referred to the proposed amount for training the firefighters as a "fringe benefit" and questioned increases in the budget for paying for water, sewer and telephone service.

Booth said he would respond to Tillerson in writing later this week, and will work to trim East Lake's budget request before it goes to the county commissioners for public hearings next month.

The commission will formally adopt its budget, including the budget and tax rate for East Lake Fire & Rescue, in September, and it will take effect Oct. 1.