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Tierra Verde gets five-year fire contract
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni speaks in favor of a five-year extension of Lealman Fire’s contract for service to Tierra Verde April 15.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners voted against staff’s recommendation April 15, after listening to Tierra Verde residents’ overwhelming support for a five-year fire service contract with Lealman.

County staff had proposed a two-year extension to accommodate potential changes coming to delivery of emergency medical services. Tierra Verde residents and Lealman Fire & Rescue preferred going with the five-year extension. The initial contract was signed Aug. 18, 2009.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard suggested a compromise during the April 15 meeting. He proposed an agreement that would extend the contract for five years, but with a two-year “re-opener.” He talked about the “competitive environment” among other fire service providers and said the compromise would allow the county to put the contract out to bid for the remaining years if conditions warranted.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked if the contract included a 90-day exit clause. Woodard said it did. Justice recommended the five-year extension.

More than a dozen residents spoke in favor of five years, providing a glowing review of the job done by Lealman firefighters.

Paul Murray said he had a petition with more than 1,000 signatures in support of the five-year extension.

“We love them and want them back,” he said, adding, “It is our money.”

Residents in unincorporated Pinellas are assessed a millage for service provided by a contracting fire department.

Murray accused the county administrator of having a “personal vendetta” with Lealman due to conflict over EMS. He said the reason county staff was recommending two years versus the five-year extension was “political bureaucracy.”

The commission agreed to terminate the administrator’s contract without cause at the beginning of the April 15 meeting.

Residents told commissioners that Lealman firefighters had been very active in the community, volunteering at events and helping in a variety of ways. They said firefighters took good care of the fire station and equipment and that response times had gone down.

Mike Wetzel, pastor of Island Chapel, said they were “good neighbors that support our businesses.”

Lealman Fire Chief Richard E. Graham also lobbied for the five-year extension. He said while he appreciated the compromise proposed by Woodard, the fire district had gone through a competitive bid process that created the current contract with the five-year extension. He talked about some controversy that occurred in 2009 surrounding that bid. He thanked the county for its support.

Bruce Moeller, the county’s executive director of Safety & Emergency Services, said the reasoning behind going with only a two-year extension had nothing to do with the service provided.

“Lealman has done a yeoman’s job,” he said. “Tierra Verde wants them.”

He said it was about the uncertainty of EMS and consideration of recent low bids received for service to South Pasadena and Highpoint from St. Petersburg Fire Department, which resulted in substantial savings to the county.

“This is an example of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” said Commissioner John Morroni, who supported the motion by Justice to extend the contract for five years.

The 90-day out clause would allow the county to terminate the contract should the need arise in the future. The contract also could be terminated in an emergency, which might include inability to provide service due to certification or equipment problems, according to the county’s legal staff. The county also would review the contract and service provided on an annual basis.

“It is good to have satisfied citizens,” said Commissioner Ken Welch.

He pointed out that South Pasadena had “begged us for years for a change” due to the high cost of fire service.

“Also, this is not about EMS,” Welch said. “I don’t have a problem. I think five years is justified.”
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