St. Petersburg Times

Fire district sounds budget alarm
By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
Published May 22, 2005

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INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - There is no doubt the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District is running out of money.

But what can be done about it is still an open question.

This month, the district has about $1.8-million in the bank. By Dec. 1, that amount is expected to drop sharply to $228,864, not enough to cover monthly expenses of $315,100.

New tax revenue will boost the district's fund balance back to about $1-million by the end of the year, according to Chief John Leahy. But that still won't be enough to cover expenses through 2007.

The district tried unsuccessfully last year to increase fees charged to district homeowners, but voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure. Officials from the towns within the district - Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores - actively lobbied to defeat the 2004 referendum.

"Our funds are being totally depleted," Leahy told the district fire board Tuesday. "If we have no means of acquiring new revenue, then they have accomplished what they wanted: We won't be here," he said.

Since then, residents in Indian Rocks Beach filed a lawsuit challenging the fire district on constitutional grounds. They also contended fire officials spent district taxes for EMS services provided outside district boundaries.

Indian Rocks Beach and other towns within the fire district joined with Pinellas County to form an Oversight Review Committee that plans to examine the district's finances and spending patterns.

The committee recently agreed to spend up to $50,000 to hire an outside consultant to review the fire district's finances. The cost will be shared by the county and towns.

The fire board is not happy with either move.

"This committee has the appearance of not being impartial," said chairman Tom Hafner Tuesday. "We are going to strongly object to it. We want to be guaranteed that their consultant will be aboveboard, unbiased and nonprejudicial."

The independent fire district was formed in the 1950s by the state Legislature and could be dissolved the same way if it becomes bankrupt. If the entity disbands, fire and rescue service most likely would be provided, at an unknown cost, by nearby departments in Largo and Seminole.

The district includes about 12,000 homes and businesses in the towns of Indian Shores, Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore, as well as on the mainland from Walsingham Road south to 94th Avenue and from 131st Street west to the Intracoastal Waterway.

The district also provides emergency rescue services to Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach on a contract with Pinellas County.