CLEARWATER — County commissioners narrowly agreed Tuesday to spend about $300,000 studying ways to solve the financial crisis facing Pinellas' emergency medical services system.The 4-3 vote came after 21/2 hours of debate in which some commissioners criticized County Administrator Bob LaSala for recommending that Fitch & Associates study only a plan he proposed last year and not include an analysis of the current system and a plan to allow firefighter-paramedics to take patients to the hospital. Most commissioners have made it clear that they are not interested in the LaSala plan, Commissioner Ken Welch said, yet he keeps trying to get the commission to implement it. Commissioner Norm Roche said he was "very disappointed" that LaSala had suggested they accept a plan the commission has never voted on.LaSala defended his actions, saying he believes his proposal is the best way to go for a system that could be facing bankruptcy within three years."I can't walk away from the position we took. I stand by the recommendation," LaSala said. "I believe that we are on a path that doesn't give us very much time."In the end, the commissioners agreed to hire Fitch, of Platte City, Mo., but made it clear they wanted a more wide-ranging study so they would have a full range of information from which to draw possible solutions."I think there are other plans that merit consideration," Welch said.The future of Pinellas' $103-million EMS system has been a looming issue for the past several years as expenses have increased and property values have decreased. LaSala last year proposed changing the system that would equalize the pay for firefighter-paramedics and would reduce the amount of manpower and rescue vehicles on the streets. But many city, fire district and fire officials said the plan would reduce the quality of care.At least three firefighters submitted two separate proposals to get rid of the private company that provides ambulance service and let fire crews transport patients. The county said the proposals were unworkable and could cost millions more than the current system.The issue ended up in the laps of the Pinellas Legislative Delegation, which would have to authorize major changes to the law that created the county's EMS system.The delegation proposed a committee be formed with members from the county and fire/city sides to recommend a consultant to figure out the cost of the LaSala plan, one of the firefighter plans and the current system. The committee extended that to an analysis of fire transport in general rather than limiting the study to one fire proposal.That committee recommended the commission choose Fitch to do the work. Fitch was the high bidder at $298,600. Welch, John Morroni, Susan Latvala and Karen Seel voted to hire Fitch. Nancy Bostock, who had questions about the scoring system that was used in evaluating Fitch's bid, voted no as did Roche and Neil Brickfield.Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.