CLEARWATER - It is expected that the Pinellas County Charter Review Commission (CRC) will give consideration to the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District's (PSF&RD) written request to the county advising them that they are open to the option of becoming a county controlled service at the upcoming CRC meeting Monday, January 30th at the Clearwater Public Library 100 North Osceola Avenue in meeting rooms A & B from 3:30 - 8:00 p.m.
At present, the county's charter is under review, a process that is mandated to occur every six years. The meetings are open to the public and are advertised to encourage public participation in the process.
The commission is an independent entity, and sets its own agenda. The agenda is posted one week before the meeting date on the county website: www.pinellascounty.org.
According to a Tallahassee consultant to the CRC, Curt Spitzer, of Curt Spitzer and Associates, "On the 30th there probably will be a couple of amendments dealing with fire issues and governances."
A fiery debate has been ongoing between the PSF&RD and the elected officials of the towns its serves.
Last month, the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation denied the PSF&RD's request to change its charter to allow automatic annual fire fee increases.
Says PSF&RD Chief John Leahy, "What we've been requesting is an additional 3.5% increase in order to give our employees a raise for cost of living."
The fire district wanted voters to go along with a $55 increase over their present $190 per household fire tax.
PSF&RD complained that their district offers the lowest salaries for fire fighters in the area because the district is not on the ad valorem system. In fact, according to Leahy, PSF&RD is the only agency in the county that has to go to voters and ask for a tax increase to increase wages for fire protection workers.
Leahy said, "We are the only fire service in the county-- out of 19 that has to go to the voters for a raise. We just lost another medic who moved on for higher pay and better benefits."
PSF&RD's requests have called attention to their accounting management practices. An oversight committee composed of representatives from Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore has been reviewing the PSF&RD's finance management.
Leahy said he feels it's an under sight that the oversight committee has been staffed only by representatives from the beach communities as PSF&RD is responsible for servicing 12,000 homes and businesses in Indian Shores, Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore, plus a sizeable portion of mainland south of Walsingham Road.
Leahy complained that, "Only four communities have been involved in making the decision and they don't represent the entire district. Voters on the mainland represent 54% of the district's area. They will be affected and don't think they should have an increase."
With county involvement, the CRC will review the proposed amendments and bring them to the voters for their consideration.
CRC requires no other approvals to bring charter amendments directly to the population for adoption.
CRC board membership includes: nine members from the public, one member from the legislative delegation, a constitutional officer, an elected city official, and one county commissioner.
Spitzer said three possible scenarios relating to fire service may be expected at the meeting and that they are not new and have been made known in public documents.
The first scenario would call for the 'creation' of a single, independent countywide fire district. According to Spitzer, "It would have its own governing body and all fire assets of the fire districts and those from cities would be transferred to it."
Spitzer added that if the scenario establishing a countywide district were approved, this particular scenario would negate the following two.
The second scenario would authorize the board of the county commissioners to set standards on a countywide basis for the four existing districts to abide by. Said Spitzer, "If this particular amendment was passed, the commission would establish county wide standards for the districts and municipalities. All would be subject to uniform policies concerning fire services, for example, how many trucks are sent when responding to a 911 call and what kind of qualified personnel man them."
The third scenario would call for the existing four independent fire districts to be 'abolished' and their assets transferred to the county government.
This is the scenario PSF&RD seems to favor. "They apparently have asked that they be abolished and transferred," said Spitzer.
Concerning the preferences of the other 3 independent districts, Spitzer said he wasn't aware of them nor did he think they've made any announcements. "They haven't made their inclinations known that I know of. I don't recall anyone saying anything in past meetings. I would suspect that they don't want it."
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