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A group made up of citizens and fire, rescue and medical officials says the system needs cash. The county wants to end inequities.
Published May 16, 2011

Pinellas County's emergency medical services system is not broken but needs more cash, according to leaders of a group appointed to advise county commissioners about the system.

That cash would likely have to come from a tax increase, but would be small - about $20 per household per year - and is justified by the county's needs, said Mike Wallace, executive director of the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council.

"The EMS system is one of the finest in the country. Contrary to generally accepted opinions it is not the most expensive and is comparable in costs and superior in outcome to other metro systems," Wallace told other members of the EMSAC executive board. Wallace is also Largo's fire chief and head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association.

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala agreed the EMS system is good, but said, "You don't have to be sick to get better."

LaSala characterized the EMSAC recommendation as simplistic and as failing to solve some of the funding and other disparities in the system.

"To simply say, we've got a good system, inject more money in the tail end of the great recession, when there (are inequities in the system), that's not a proposal that I would ever put before the public," LaSala said. "And I'm hard-pressed to understand ... that the members of this executive committee (would) truly propose that to the public with a straight face."

LaSala recently released a preliminary report of a $130,000 study of Pinellas' EMS system. The main recommendation involves limiting funding to 72 paramedic positions countywide. The county currently funds 62 such positions. A paramedic position is 3.6 paramedics - the number needed to keep a seat filled 24/7 and provide for supervision and other expenses. They would be funded equally - an average amount for the county. The cost, he says, would be about $27.1 million annually, a savings of about $11 million over the current system. The savings would come from changes in the type of vehicles being used and by standardizing the rate at which departments would be reimbursed for each position. That would mean some departments would get less per position than they do now.

Wallace said he agrees that the system does need adjusting in several areas, including the disparities. But, he said, LaSala's recommendation suffers the same criticism he's leveling at EMSAC's.

"It is simplistic to pay everybody the same. ... His answer is as simplistic as ours, but ours preserves the system," Wallace said. "It is a complicated issue that does not have a simple solution. ... There are ways for this to work that he did not explore."

The EMSAC group, which consists of citizens and fire, EMS and medical officials, was created by law to provide oversight and expert commentary to county commissioners about the EMS system. Historically, the group has been ignored, but members want a larger say in the EMS debate. Group members have authorized the executive board to carry their message for a tax increase and support for the system during individual, private meetings with county commissioners and with a public presentation.

The increased EMSAC activism comes as LaSala is shopping around his report, which proposes a major overhaul in funding for the EMS system.

Under the current system, Pinellas property owners all pay an EMS tax. That is currently 0.5832 cents per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable, property value. A property owner with a home valued at $150,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption, pays about $58.32 for EMS. Commissioners could raise the rate as high as $1.50 per thousand dollars of assessed value without asking taxpayers' permission.

That tax money - about $31.5 million - is redistributed to 18 fire districts and cities. But that amount isn't enough to cover the approximately $38.1 million those districts and cities charge the county to provide EMS.

Nor does it reflect the funding inequities in the system.

At one end of the scale, taxpayers in the area covered by South Pasadena contribute $297,722 in taxes to the EMS system. But the county pays South Pasadena 225 percent of that - $670,060 - to provide EMS services. At the other end is Pinellas Suncoast. Pinellas Suncoast's property owners, most of whom live in tax-rich beach communities, pay about $2.09 million into the EMS system. But the county returns only about 26 percent of that - $545,990 - to Pinellas Suncoast for EMS.

Those are just the extreme examples. St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and Largo are also given considerably more than their taxpayers contribute. Treasure Island's taxpayers see less than half what they pay into the system. East Lake, Oldsmar and Madeira Beach also pay a lot that's sent elsewhere in the countywide system.

Reach Anne Lindberg at or (727) 893-8450.