LARGO – After months of wrangling on the issue, the city of Largo is close to a consensus with the county on the hotly contended agreement for EMS funding.
“It’s a 180 degrees from where we started. We are definitely more pleased,” said Fire Chief Shelby Willis July 8.
Willis had said that the city was set to lose $9 million in EMS funds over the next 10 years if they had accepted the budget cuts included in the county’s proposed contract. When Pinellas County administrators would not negotiate for more funding, Largo passed a resolution April 15 to initiate governmental conflict resolution procedures.
On May 27, they hosted a meeting with Pinellas County Public Safety Services Executive Director Bruce Moeller and invited other fire districts and departments that also were displeased with the budget cuts. That meeting, held after County Administrator Bob LaSala was fired, was the first step in negotiating new terms.
Since then, Largo has met with the county twice in June, and the city of St. Petersburg has negotiated and signed a three-year contract with the county. The landscape for the negotiations has entirely changed, Willis said.
“The majority of the municipalities got together and were displeased, and St. Petersburg was able to negotiate their contract. We asked for the same ability, and I think the county listened,” she said.
The county has offered Largo one of two options. Commissioners agreed with Willis that “funding option B,” which was modeled after the agreement with St. Petersburg, was the better of the two.
“Pinellas County has said that this is their final offer,” Willis explained to commissioners July 8. “They’re not going to hold any more collaborative meetings. We will be able to meet one-on-one with them to discuss fine-tuning the agreement.”
In option B, the city would have to mirror St. Petersburg and submit a 2014-15 year budget that is 5.4 percent less than its current-year budget. However, Largo, like St. Petersburg, has benefited from significant personnel costs and pension contributions reductions, Willis said.
“Largo would have to take an additional $16,000 out of their proposed budget for (fiscal year) 15 to meet this 5.39 reduction. That’s very doable for us,” she explained.
In the second year of the contract, Largo could request an 8 percent budget increase. In the third year, the budget could increase by 5.8 percent, meaning that over the three-year contract, the city’s budget would increase a cumulative $349,533, or 8.2 percent.
“Now, we aren’t actually going to have a budget that increases by 8 percent. But we have the ability should we (need it),” Willis clarified after the meeting.
Willis had said that the major problem is that the previous contract froze the city’s budget for three years, taking in no account for increasing costs. Now, the city has more flexibility in funding.
Willis said she recently met with the county to discuss Largo’s contract-funded units at stations 38 and 42. In the year to date, calls for medical service at those stations just barely fall short of the required number to receive funding for another unit. Willis said the city would request guaranteed funding for those units in fiscal year 2016, should the call volume increase by less than 0.5 calls per day needed to meet the threshold. The city also will be asking for funding for EMS administration, as is granted to other cities with less call volume.
The county has barred the city’s attorney, Alan Zimmet from participating in the review or negotiation of the contract, citing a conflict of interest as his firm represents the county in bond hearings.
“I’d like to formally request that they reconsider that,” Mayor Pat Gerard said, clarifying that Zimmet doesn’t deal with the bond issues. “I think it’s outrageous, them telling us we can’t use our own attorney.”
Commissioner Curtis Holmes asked if the county had given Largo credit for running calls for mutual aid, since, given its geographical position, Largo helps other cities and fire districts more than it receives mutual aid.
“I don’t think we’re going to fix that in the future, in the near future,” Willis said.
“That’s extremely annoying,” Holmes commented.
Willis said that if that extra call volume was calculated in, the city would receive funding for two additional units.
City officials will be meeting with county representatives to negotiate and clarify issues in the contract July 11, Willis said. Along with discussing contract-funded units, EMS administration funding and Zimmet’s ability to review the contract, the city wants to clarify conflicting language on the required budget reduction for fiscal year 2015. Gerard also requested the county add back a sentence in the contract stating that the city desires to maintain its current response times.
“We currently enjoy, system-wide, 4.5-minute response times. And we’d all like to see it stay that way even though the requirement is 7.5 minutes,” Gerard said.