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Florida City Council Rejects County’s EMS Cuts

ST. PETERSBURG - City leaders could be on course for another legal battle with the county over proposed cuts to emergency medical services, with some city leaders floating the drastic option of leaving the countywide 911 medical responder system.

City council members said Thursday they will not accept the county's proposed cuts to EMS funding, which would see St. Petersburg lose $1 million per year - about 8 percent of the county's $13 million share of EMS funding.

The council instructed Mayor Rick Kriseman to continue negotiations with Pinellas County Administrator Robert LaSala. Kriseman's position is that the city is already underfunded and cuts should only be made once the city receives its full share of EMS funding.

But if those talks fail, council members said they are prepared to go to court. They said the city is in a strong legal position, based on the special state act that established the countywide EMS system and the city's success in a 1989 lawsuit in which the judge ruled the county must pay for the current level of service to be maintained.

I'm willing to authorize litigation and get what we derive based on the special act and the current status of the law, said council member Jim Kennedy, who serves on the city's EMS committee.

Council Chairman Bill Dudley said he would be prepared to go further, with the city providing its own EMS service and leaving the county system.

This keeps raising its ugly head; I'm tired of us being bullied, said Dudley. In the long run, we'd be happy not to have to deal with this stuff anymore.

Opting out would be complicated, requiring the support of the area's state lawmakers to amend or revoke the special act. The city would also likely have to levy its own EMS property tax to replace county funding.

The current spat is the latest in a decades-long battle over EMS costs. City officials argue that residents' lives would be put at risk if response times are lengthened. Without cuts, county officials warn that EMS will run at a deficit, forcing the county to use up reserves and raise taxes.

Overall, Pinellas County officials are planning to cut $2.3 million from the $40.4 million it pays each year to 18 fire districts to act as medical first responders. The plan, which came out of a study by Fitch and Associates, was recently backed by the Board of County Commissioners.

It recommends fewer paramedics on duty overnight, when the volume of 911 calls drops, although it would be up to cities and fire districts to decide overnight staffing levels.

EMS funding for Clearwater, Largo, Lealman and Pinellas Park would also be cut under the plan, but Palm Harbor, Seminole and Tarpon Springs would get modest increases. Also, annual funding increases would be suspended for three years. Beginning in 2018, funding increases would be based on a cost-of-living index.

County officials say the cuts would only result only in a seven-second increase in the county's 4½ minute average response time. The county's standard is to respond to 90 percent of calls within 7½ minutes.

But St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Chief Ian Womack warned that would mean hundreds of calls in which residents in need of medical help would have to wait longer.

He also warned that the county plan would affect the department's ability to respond to fires at a time when studies show fires are more likely to be fatal.

During nighttime hours when fire response is most critical, they want to task that vehicle to do medical calls, he said.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO



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