Sparks fly over unified fire study
City officials in Pinellas get riled over a new study authorized by the county to explore efficiencies in fire services.
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
Published April 8, 2005


CLEARWATER - A study authorized by Pinellas County commissioners this week has city officials poised for another round of debates over whether the county should consolidate local fire service.

The highly contested topic surfaced for the second time in recent months when a special board reviewing the Pinellas charter asked county commissioners to let it study a series of government services with the hope of finding efficiencies.

Five county commissioners agreed on Tuesday to pay MGT of America Inc. up to $147,940 for an update of a study first prepared by the Tallahassee firm in 1992. It was updated in 1998 and 2002.

City officials and firefighters have called the consultant's previous three studies flawed and question the discussion being raised by the county-appointed board.

County commissioners and members of the charter review board say they are just looking for opportunities to save taxpayers money and provide better service.

The proposed consulting agreement has the firm reviewing six major areas of government services: fire, police, building/planning/zoning, code enforcement, water and sewer, and library services.

"This is not about a big consolidation," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who serves on the county's charter review commission. "Nobody is talking about that. It's about delivery of services in a more economical and efficient way."

The Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association and Pinellas County Council of Firefighters issued a joint letter condemning the consultant's studies as having "inaccuracies and unreliable information."

"Most of the fire chiefs were not contacted" by the consultant, said South Pasadena fire Chief Bill Naylor, president of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association. "It was strictly a cost-cutting measure."

City and county officials have a history of debating the benefits and consequences of having one fire district. The county has said it is inevitable and would be more efficient. The larger cities disagree.

Most recently, the issue surfaced in November when the county attorney sent state Rep. Frank Farkas draft legislation seeking to change the county charter by eliminating all city fire departments and special fire control districts beginning in 2007.

When city managers received word last week that the charter review commission was raising the issue again, they grilled County Administrator Steve Spratt at a monthly meeting of local administrators.

Spratt told them he wasn't pushing the study. It was coming from the charter review committee. He suggested they respond, so they are part of the process.

Largo City Manager Steven Stanton questions the membership of the charter board, which was appointed by county commissioners. He had hoped they might have added a city manager to the committee. They did not.

"When the cities wanted to become a part of the discussion early on, Susan Latvala made a big issue that this is the county charter, and it has nothing to do with the cities," Stanton said. "The cities are very much related to the discussion. I don't think we were afforded the opportunity for an equal seat at the table."

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne doubts the cities would agree to abandon the current system of fire service.

"I don't think we should be afraid of a study," said Horne. "I think part of the concern was: Should we spend $148,000 on a study that was handled the way it was a few years ago?"

County Commissioner Bob Stewart and Chairman John Morroni objected to the study. Stewart made a point that he could not support it because of the cost, which nearly equaled the charter review commission's entire budget of $150,000.

Latvala said the charter group, which needed County Commission approval for the expenditure, plans to talk more about the contract on April 18, prior to engaging the consultant.

Latvala said the board's intention is not to have one fire department.

"I can't imagine that happening," Latvala said. "It's a huge undertaking. But finding ways for everyone to have the same level of service and pay the same fee for it would be a brilliant thing to accomplish."

[Last modified April 8, 2005, 00:33:18]