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Largo to take over city's lone fire station

The City Commission decided it wants Largo Fire Rescue to manage the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department, which has gone two years without a permanent leader.

At Wednesday night's meeting, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to pay Largo Fire Rescue $136,500 a year to supervise all employees and activities at their one-station fire department.

"I think it says the commissioners have done their homework," Largo fire Chief E. Caroll Williams said. "They have listened to the firefighters and the community."

A formal three-year agreement will be drafted during the next couple of weeks, Williams said.

Under the contract, an administrator would not be stationed on site, Williams said, but every day a district chief, training chief or deputy chief would visit the department, which serves about 9,000 people in Belleair Bluffs, the town of Belleair and unincorporated areas of Harbor Hills, Harbor Bluffs and Oakdale Manor.

A district chief would also be dispatched to all fires.

"We're going to get a lot for our dollar," Commissioner Brett Nelson said. "It will keep a positive atmosphere for the city as well as the Fire Department."

Since Belleair Bluffs fired Chief Joseph Pidala two years ago, temporary leaders have run the department's day-to-day operations. First, Largo stepped in. Then, three Belleair Bluffs fire lieutenants split administrative tasks. And since spring, Mike Cooksey, Pinellas County fire coordinator, has overseen the daily activities of the department, which has an $852,000 budget.

City Commissioner Robert Russo said Belleair Bluffs urgently needs the leadership Largo can provide to keep overtime costs under control. Over the past four months, Belleair Bluffs Fire Department has paid $17,000 in overtime pay.

Williams said Largo Fire Rescue would try to alleviate the problem.

While most of the commissioners supported a contract with Largo Fire Rescue, Commissioner Dave Shimkus fought adamantly against it. It was less expensive to hire a chief, leaving more money for raises to the county's lowest paid firefighters. The starting salary for Belleair Bluffs firefighters is $27,000 a year, about $3,000 less than the countywide average, Belleair Bluffs Lt. Chuck Barlet said.

"I am in favor of putting the money in our firefighters' pockets," he said. "There is no excess of money to give to Largo if we want to pay our firefighters."

Shimkus estimated that it would cost, at most, $130,000 to hire a chief and a deputy chief and purchase a car for the chief.

Each of the city's four commissioners serves as liaison between a specific department and the commission for no more than two years. Shimkus, who serves as fire commissioner until March, said he'll be able to work with Largo despite his opposition to the contract.

"I actually feel sorry for the next fire commissioner because whoever the next commissioner is, he's going to have to walk in and face those firefighters and they're going to know he's the one who took money out their pockets," Shimkus said.

But Mayor Chris Arbutine said the decision has nothing to do with union negotiations or firefighter raises.

Lt. Barlet, district vice president I.A.F.F. Local 1158, said firefighters unanimously supported Largo's leadership and the majority of the department's full-time firefighters showed up at the meeting.

"Last night, morale improved immediately," Barlet said Thursday. "And it shot through the roof."

Senior firefighter Dale Fletcher said he has confidence in Largo's leadership and is not worried that problems related to racist remarks in Largo's fire department would affect his department. Over the past 15 months, three Largo fire lieutenants have left the department after allegations that they made inappropriate comments at work.

"We're really not concerned with those isolated problems they're having in Largo," Fletcher said.

Assistant County Administrator Gay Lancaster, former Belleair Bluffs Mayor John Diller and resident Garth Armstrong came to the meeting to ask the commission to approve Largo's leadership.

"Although I don't always agree with Largo, I would support the professional management of the Largo fire department," Lancaster said.

The Belleair Bluffs Fire Department averages about 600 calls a year and firefighters hope that down the road the relationship will boost call volume. It is not part of the contract, but both Largo and Belleair Bluffs officials have expressed interest in assigning a Largo paramedic to the Belleair Bluffs Fire Station in the future.

Countywide, approximately 70 percent of the calls require advanced life support units with paramedics.

_ Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at

Belleair Bluffs Fire Department

6 full-time firefighters

3 lieutenants

1 station

Serves 5 square miles and about 9,000 people in Belleair Bluffs, the town of Belleair and unincorporated areas of Harbor Hills, Harbor Bluffs and Oakdale Manor