LARGO – The city of Largo became the first fire district to officially reject Pinellas County’s proposed budget cuts for EMS funding April 15.
During their meeting, Largo commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to initiate governmental conflict resolution procedures with Pinellas County government. The city cannot afford to lose what Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis has estimated to be as high as $9 million in funding over the next 10 years if they accepted the county’s contract as written.
“There’s a lot of money at stake for the city,” City Attorney Alan Zimmet said. “We have a statutory right that’s being compromised. That’s a very important issue.”
City staff has tried to negotiate for more EMS funding, and the commissioners, after sending a letter to the county stating their position, invited Bruce Moeller, the county’s executive director of public safety services, to explain the proposed cuts April 1. But the county has not budged from its insistence on the system-wide, costs-saving proposal, called CARES 2.
As a result of passing the resolution, the city has sent a letter to the county April 16, copying it to all of the fire districts affected by the proposed changes. The county has 10 days to respond. The city has suggested scheduling the mandated conflict assessment meeting for Thursday, May 8 at Largo City Hall.
Largo is the first to pass the necessary resolution to enter in conflict resolution procedure, which could end in the city suing the county if a compromised can’t be reached between staff or in a joint public meeting between elected officials.
“I’m totally in favor of this, but I totally despise government suing government,” Commissioner Curtis Holmes said, voicing a fear that the cost of litigation might exceed the funding the city is fighting for.
Zimmet assured him otherwise.
“There’s no case I’ve ever handled where the legal fees are $9 million,” he said.
Mayor Pat Gerard added, “I don’t think we’re going to be in this by ourselves. We’ll be sharing those legal costs.”
Several of the other fire districts are meeting with their elected officials over the next two weeks to determine what course of action they will take against the county, Willis said.
“We should know in the next week or so what municipalities will be joining us, if any,” she said.
In the CARES 2 proposal, two paramedic positions assigned to rescue units at Largo’s fire stations 41 and 42 would stay in service only 14 hours a day, going out of service during the system’s least busy time period between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. The reduction in funded hours would cost Largo $175,000 per year for the next three years. Further, the proposed contract would freeze funding for three years, which would mean the city would lose out on an estimated $2 million in inflation revenue.
Commissioner Woody Brown pointed out that when he asked Moeller about the funding freeze, he was told that Pinellas County’s per capita cost for EMS service was way out of line with similar systems across the country. But Brown said he didn’t find that to be the case when he did his own research.
“I spent hours trying to find numbers, and they’re not that easy to find, but all of them are right about where we are. Some of them are much higher,” he explained. “It’s just frustrating that the argument that’s given to me to put more burden to our taxpayers – it didn’t seem like there was any truth to it.”
Commissioner Michael Smith asked if there had been a response from the county since the city’s April 1 meeting, especially after county Administer Bob Lasala had been fired April 15. There has been none, staff said, except when the city tried to fill out a three-page electronic document, listing its requested funding, City Manager Mac Craig said.
“As soon as you put your numbers in, the software in the system automatically turns into the numbers that they want,” Craig explained.
“I think that’s a statement,” Gerard said.
Holmes said he hoped the county would “see the light of day” on the issue.
“They have a new administrator coming in who make look at this in a little different way. That is my sincere hope,” he said.
During the April 15 meeting, Largo commissioners also:
• Accepted the Charter Review Committee’s proposed changes to the Largo charter, along with striking language that requires the mayor to appoint all committee members. The changes will be drafted into a resolution, to be added to the ballot in November elections.
• Approved a comprehensive study of the I-9 sanitary sewer system within the Kent Place subdivision, which will cost $194,184 and determine possible solutions for problems reported by the residents. The study would be conducted during the rainy season, May through August, and after results are analyzed, provide improvement alternatives and associated costs to the commission by November 2014.
• Approved the first reading of pension plan changes, as negotiated with fire and police unions over the last three years.
• Accepted the proposed capital improvements program, discussed in full April 8.