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Fla. city threatens to leave county EMS if funding slashed

The city would either sue the county or form its own system after a four-year struggle to rein in county costs

By Anne Lindberg
Tampa Bay Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Council members here were resolute and clear Thursday: If the county insists on slashing funding to pay for the delivery of emergency medical services, St. Petersburg will sue or leave the system.

Should St. Petersburg pull out, it would form its own EMS system and levy its own tax to pay for the service. The move would require action from the Legislature to change the state law that created Pinellas' EMS system.

"I'm tired of being bullied," said Bill Dudley, chairman of the St. Petersburg council. "Our citizens expect and deserve more."

Dudley was referring to the wrangling over funding between the county and the 18 fire departments that provide EMS service. The struggle has been going on for at least four years as the county has sought to rein in costs that County Administrator Bob LaSala says are out of control. Under state law, the county levies a property tax to pay for the countywide EMS system. The county then disburses that money to the cities and fire districts that provide the service.

LaSala's latest proposal includes slashing the money it pays St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Lealman, the county's busiest departments. Those cuts would be phased in over a three-year period. Any subsequent cuts or increases to those budgets would be figured from that new base.

In addition to those cuts, LaSala's plan includes a three-year budget freeze and, after that, a cap on the percentage of increases. All 18 departments would be subject to the freeze and cap. LaSala says his proposal will save about $60 million over the next 10 years.

For St. Petersburg, the amount of the cut is about $1.1 million, or about 8.6 percent of the $12.5 million EMS budget. But city officials say the reality is much worse -- a loss of about $4.4 million over the next three years, or about 35 percent of its budget.

The loss, over 10 years, is projected to be about $22.1 million. Those cuts would be devastating, city officials said, and would lessen the service St. Petersburg residents now receive. Those cuts and the freeze, they say, would also violate the law's requirement that the county provide the needed funds to operate the system.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has offered to negotiate with LaSala. But he and the council agree that St. Petersburg cannot accept the plan as proposed.

If LaSala and the County Commission remain firm, as they have said they will, then St. Petersburg council members say they have no option but to take action.

"If we can negotiate, that would be great," council member Steve Kornell said. "If we can't, I'm willing to stand up for our citizens."

Council member Jim Kennedy noted that members of the Pinellas Legislative delegation have indicated they are willing to consider abolishing the state law that created the county's EMS system in favor of something new. Kennedy didn't rule that out as an option, but said he preferred seeking the court's help. (In a similar dispute between the county and St. Petersburg in the late 1980s, the courts sided with St. Petersburg.)

"I'm willing to authorize litigation," Kennedy said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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