St. Petersburg Times

Fire district may face iffy future
The Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District's proposed budget leaves unsolved issues in regard to long-term funding.
By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
Published July 13, 2005

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INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Next year's proposed $3.858-million budget for the financially strapped Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District may be "lean and mean" but it does not appear to answer the department's long-term funding dilemma.

"If we don't have a change in our tax revenues, it's very doubtful we will last," fire Chief John Leahy says.

Although the 2005-06 budget still shows black ink, Leahy says that may not be true for subsequent years.

"Nobody else (other fire departments) is living on fixed fees," says Leahy, adding that the department auditor's past warning that the department is running out of money and could face bankruptcy in the near future is still valid.

The fire department, which serves mid county beach communities and an unincorporated area between Largo and Seminole, came under sharp criticism and a strong voter backlash in a tax referendum last year.

Fire officials first proposed switching to ad valorem (property) taxes to ensure a growing source of revenues based on increasing property values. But when officials of several beach cities strongly opposed that move, arguing that it could significantly increase the tax burden of beach homeowners, the department backed down.

Instead, it asked voters to abandon a fixed-fee fire tax in favor of a tax based on a building's size.

They refused.

Then, city officials in Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores enlisted the help of Pinellas County to begin an investigation of the fire department's finances and operating procedures. That investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Indian Rocks Beach officials and residents filed a lawsuit challenging the present fire tax structure. That legal fight is still winding its way through the courts.

Amid all of this controversy, the fire department is struggling to find enough money to continue to operate.

In the next weeks and months, the fire district's board of commissioners will review its new budget, looking for more ways to cut expenses and build revenues.

This is what they have done so far:

- Eliminated three firefighter positions, reducing staffing costs by 4.72 percent, or about $160,000.

- Instituted new service and impact fees, increasing revenues by more than $230,000.

- Cut spending in virtually every department to partially offset sharp increases in legal fees, liability insurance and fuel, for a net 15.75 percent ($97,592) increase in operational spending.

Even the firefighters union is trying to help.

According to Leahy, the union has offered not to ask for higher salaries in exchange for a better benefits package. The department and the union are currently negotiating a new contract with the department.

The department's firefighters are presently the lowest paid in the county, Leahy said.

Despite these cuts and a nearly 8 percent increase in overall revenues, the department's entire budget is only 1.21 percent higher than last year. And by the end of the 2005-06 fiscal year, the ending fund balance will be down to $121,232.

On a more positive note, anticipated new revenues from impact fees and a hike in EMS funding from the county allow the district to put more than $200,000 into its capital fund for eventual rebuilding of one of its fire stations and replacement of operational fire equipment.

Last year those fund contributions were virtually eliminated because of revenue shortfalls.

"We feel very strongly that we are doing what is necessary to provide quality services for our people," Leahy said.

Formal budget hearings are scheduled for Sept. 8 and 22.