CLEARWATER – The Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District gained little ground – in fact, probably lost some – in its quest to have the area’s legislative delegation to Tallahassee take up its cause for increased revenue.
Mayors and other elected officials from the four cities served by the fire district met mid-October to plot strategy opposing the district’s aims for the meeting last Thursday with the legislative delegation.
They asked the members of the delegation to hold up on the request of PSF&R directors seeking authority to control how it charges for its services.
The legislative delegation is key to what happens in the controversy that has gone on for months because the fire district is the creature of and is ultimately controlled by the Legislature.
The squabble is chiefly over how and how much the district should charge residents to fund its budget. PSF&R is financed by a flat fee from each household and a commercial fee schedule. The district raised the fee to $190 yearly from $120 after a referendum a couple of years ago.
Less than a year later the district sought another increase and this off the controversy that has continued since. That fighting has been seasoned and spiced with alleged lack of cooperation from the fire district commission.
Part of the ongoing story is the oversight committee formed by the four cities – Indian Shores, Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore - and the county (about half of the district is on the mainland, under county jurisdiction).
That committee has engaged a consultant that is examining the operation of the fire district. Its report will be filed on an advisory basis with the Legislature when completed.
Asking for delay of any action by the legislative delegation was part of the cities’ request last Thursday. The city officials want the oversight study to be completed and submitted before any action is taken.
One bone of contention is that the cities question the expenditures of the fire district administration and contend that PSF&R has extended its service unlawfully outside the district.
Mayor Bill Ockunzzi of Indian Rocks Beach has said that the fire district commission has resisted cooperating with the oversight committee.
One setback for the fire district came Thursday when Rep. Kim Berfield, the delegation chairperson, asked the fire district’s representative, Dave Ramba, if there was a sponsor for the bill on matters the district wants to bring to the Legislature.
Learning that there was no such sponsor, she pointed out that delegation rules specify that if there is no sponsor for a bill, then a two-thirds majority of the delegation is required to approve a bill for submission.
In his presentation to the delegation, Ramba argued that three of the five members of the fire district board are from the aggrieved cities.
Rep. Everett Rice seemingly blew that argument out of the water by asking that if the city commissions were unanimous in their opposition to what the fire district was seeking, didn’t that mean that 20 local elected officials were in opposition? Ramba agreed.
Ockunzzi and Bill Smith, an Indian Shores commissioner, made the cities’ presentation to the delegation members.
While Ramba claimed the district board was cooperating with the oversight committee, a citizen, Ed Piniero of Indian Rocks Beach, said that the district still does not comply with the requirement and spirit of the Public Records Laws.
He also pointed out the substantial losses the PSF&R is incurring because of the provision of EMS (and a fire suppression squad) outside the District.
Ockunzzi said PSF&R receives about $1 million funding from the county for EMS services but spends $1.4 million delivering the service because of the station in the Redingtons. District taxpayers make up the $400,000 difference, he said.
Ockunzzi had only praise for the personnel providing EMS and fire fighting service and emphasized that the disagreement by the cities is over only over management of the district, not the “professionalism and capabilities of the firefighters and EMTs.”
There will be another meeting with the delegation December 1.
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