CLEARWATER - Pinellas County commissioners on Thursday endorsed a plan that would cut EMS costs by more than $6 million but could mean job losses for firefighters.
The proposal recommends cutting first responder shifts from 24 hours down to 14 to reduce redundancies overnight, when call volumes are typically much lower. The plan would not eliminate overnight shifts outright, but it would mean fewer people would be on the clock during the slower hours, likely opening the door for staff reductions. County officials have not said whether that would happen through layoffs or attrition.
The county, which contracts with local fire departments to provide fire and emergency medical services, has been pushing for changes to curb rising costs; fire departments, though, have bristled at proposals they say could result in lost jobs and endanger public safety.
In 2011, the county hired the Fitch Consulting Group to develop recommendations for cutting costs without losing service. Thursday, the County Commission back the findings outlined in the 140-page, $300,000 Fitch report, which concludes that cost-cutting measures such as reducing overnight shifts could save $6.3 million annually. The county, which shares EMS costs with municipalities and fire districts, would enjoy half of those savings.
"I think this gives us the basis to move forward," said County Commission Chairman Ken Welch. "We've got to, over time, bring down that cost curve."
To avoid an 8-percent hike in the EMS property tax to cover growing costs in the coming fiscal year, the county plans on dipping into EMS reserves, a practice estimated to drain that fund by 2019 without expense cuts.
Prior proposed cost-cutting measures included stopping the practice of sending a fire engine and an ambulance to nonemergency 911 calls, such as people complaining of stomach pains. The suggestion drew fire from cities, fire districts and the union. St. Petersburg and other cities threatened to sue if the county went forward with the plan.
While the proposed changes in the Fitch Report are not as drastic as they could have been, local fire departments aren't happy.
"If some of the proposed reductions are included, if some of those changes are made to the system and the delivery, obviously, jobs could ultimately be at stake," said Will Newton, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
"They have a millage cap they can go up to. They're nowhere near that now, but no one wants to be the bad guy and raise taxes because that has to be supported by property values," he said.
Some fire officials wondered whether the Fitch Group used good data in the statistical models underlying its recommendations.
"There's still some debate over a lot of the data that was used to formulate a lot of the recommendations," said Robert Polk, fire chief for the Suncoast Fire District and president of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association. "We would like to continue to drill down on those so that everybody has an understanding of exactly what those numbers are and what they represent.
"This is delivering critical service. We're not talking about the operating hours of a swimming pool or a library. We're talking about a critical service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
The County Commission also plans to overhaul EMS administration to save money.
While the shift reduction may take years to implement, the EMS overhaul has to be done by the end of the year so that cities, which cover half of local EMS costs, can budget accordingly, Pinellas Safety and Emergency Services Director Bruce Moeller said.
"I'm optimistic that the parties will be able to sit with our partners to work out the solution to the financial aspects of it," he said.
Specifics on the proposal
History: County trying to save $, fire departments trying to save jobs
Rising costs, inability raise taxes (financial squeeze)