CLEARWATER — Pinellas County officials are proposing to cut $2.3 million from EMS funding during the next three years, a move that may put the county into conflict with some Pinellas cities and fire districts.
The reductions are based on a $300,000 Fitch & Associates study that says the county could have fewer paramedics on duty overnight when the volume of 911 calls drops. The county is looking to reduce the $40.4 million it pays every year to Pinellas’ 18 fire districts to serve as medical first responders. Without changes, the EMS system will run at a $3.4 million deficit in 2015, county officials estimate.
The cuts would be phased in over three years to soften the blow, but that might not placate cities and fire districts that for several years have threatened legal action if the county adopted cost-saving proposals they say would lengthen 911 response times and put residents at risk.
Under the proposal, funding would be cut from five districts — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Lealman and Pinellas Park — that have extra capacity. St. Petersburg would take the biggest hit, losing roughly $1 million in annual funding by 2017. Ten communities would see funding remain at current levels, while three — Palm Harbor, Seminole and Tarpon Springs — would get modest increases.
Once a new funding base has been established, allocations would remain frozen for three years. Beginning in 2018, they would be linked to a cost index.
County commissioners will review the plan at a workshop Tuesday.
Bruce Moeller, Pinellas County executive director of safety and emergency services, said models show the cuts can be made without lowering 911 response times, which average 4 ½ minutes across the county.
“We are not changing the performance of the system,” Moeller said. “In the middle of the night there are a lot of units sitting around not doing anything. We’re paying for things that are not needed.”
Commissioners and County Administrator Bob LaSala have warned that the county cannot afford to keep raising property taxes to pay for the service, regarded as one of the best in the nation.
The taxes pay for at least one firefighter cross-trained as a paramedic to be on every fire vehicle dispatched on a call. The money also pays for medical equipment and supplies. Every 911 medical call also is attended by an ambulance through a contract with Paramedics Plus, which commissioners last week extended for another year after negotiating a $500,000 annual saving.
For a typical fire station, the county pays the cost of a rescue truck and for two paramedics to be on duty at all times. Under the new proposal, funding would provide for a rescue truck and two paramedics for a 14-hour shift and a single paramedic covering a 10-hour period overnight.
To encourage cities to agree to the plan, the county has proposed continuing to pay $250,000 for the high-speed data line that links fire stations to its 911 system.
“A number of cities understand the EMS system needs to be financially stable,” Moeller said. “Some of them getting impacted may or may not feel that same way.”
EMS has been a thorny issue between the county and cities for decades.
In the late 1980s, St. Petersburg won a court order requiring that the county maintain existing levels of service. The city was among half a dozen that last year passed resolutions opposing a county proposal to reduce costs by having only ambulances attend low-priority 911 medical calls and threatened a lawsuit if the county went ahead. The county delayed the proposal, which then was rejected by the Fitch report.
Mayor Rick Kriseman will review the new plan with city staff this week, said spokesman Ben Kirby.
Council member Jim Kennedy, who serves on the city’s EMS committee, said he had not seen the proposal but he would expect the city to oppose any changes that would mean longer response times for residents in need of medical attention.
“Obviously we would continue to object to anything that would reduce the level of service that the city of St. Petersburg is guaranteed by prior court orders,” he said.