The Pasco County Commission is turning up the heat on its administration’s efforts to improve response times for the county’s emergency crews.
During a recent budget workshop, board members wanted to know why it isn’t possible to bring fire stations online quicker than is currently planned.
The questions surfaced during the board’s May 24 budget workshop.
The discussion came after repeated appearances at board meetings by members of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 4420, representing Pasco’s firefighters, who have complained that they aren’t able to respond to emergencies fast enough.
They said the delays pose a risk to Pasco residents, who need medical attention and to properties that are in danger of destruction.
During the budget discussion, Robert Goehig the county’s budget director, updated the county board on progress regarding fire stations being built through the general obligation bonds approved by voters.
Fire Station 17 is under construction at 2951 Seven Springs Blvd., in New Port Richey, and Fire Station 9 is being built in Land O’ Lakes.
Fire Station 3, which will be located in Beacon Woods, is expected to be put out for bid in the next few weeks, Goehig said.
Commissioner Jack Mariano wanted to know why more progress hadn’t already been made on Beacon Woods, given the fact the county has owned the property for several years.
Commissioner Mike Moore asked: “What can we do, when it comes to purchasing, to prioritize? I know obviously, when you’re moving something up, something else pops down.
“But we’re talking about public safety. Obviously, that should take priority.
“So, what can we do?”
County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said the county attorney’s office prioritizes its legal work based on the county administrator’s priority list.
“Fire Station No. 3 is No. 4 on the current ranking,” Steinsnyder said.
Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick responded: “It’s needed now. It’s imperative.”
County Administrator Dan Biles responded: “I want to remind the board that before we even took the bond to the voters in 2018, we outlined a phasing program for all nine fire stations.
“We phased the building so that when they come online, we have the funding to operate them.
“If you build them too early, you don’t have the funding to operate them,” Biles said.
“So, right now, (Stations) two and four, we don’t have the funds in ’23 to actually operate them, if they opened in ’23.”
He said the phasing was requested by the board, to ensure the county would have funding for operations.
“So, that’s what we’ve done,” Biles said.
Growth prompts need for faster action
Commissioner Mariano said the decision that was made at that time made sense.
“However, with the surge of growth that’s out there right now, with the extended times that people are taking to get service, I think it’s time we need to re-look at it, and make an adjustment.”
Mariano said he doesn’t understand why it would take so long for architectural work related to the buildings, since they can be essentially the same buildings.
Biles said each building has to be individually sited to make sure the footprint of the building fits on the site.
“You have to do the civil work and adapt it to the site, because every site is different. Every site has different site constraints, different access points. All of that stuff is different for every site,” Biles said.
Biles told the board a proposed “peak-hour rescue program” can be initiated to help reduce the response time for rescue calls.
Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey asked about the possibility of adding private rescue companies.
“If our dilemma right now is not having enough rescue, we can contract out, temporarily, until we have more of our own. It’s our same firefighters that are working for those companies that are manning that could be available, parked around the county that could help us.
“Right now, I think they just do transport, but I’ve been told they can do rescue,” she said.
Biles responded: “There are different classifications of transport and we allow the privates to do a certain level of that. We don’t allow them to do the initial emergency response.”
The county administrator said part of the problem stems from neighborhoods springing up in areas that are not close to fire stations. Another problem is that the county went a considerable number of years without adding any fire stations.
“We went over a decade without building a new fire station,” he said.
Meanwhile, “we added 100,000 people in Pasco County and we didn’t build a fire station.”
Biles noted that the corridors of U.S. 19, State Road 54 and U.S. 301 are where the peak-hour calls are happening.
The county has existing facilities in those corridors, Biles added. “So, it’s put the peak-hour rescue units in, the facilities that we have and let them be mobile.
“Every new fire station is going to help, but the issue right now is the peak call volume. So, the peak-hour rescue program that we’re already working to stand up, is the right way to attack it,” Biles said.
Commissioner Moore asked Steinsnyder if the county could pursue a Municipal Services Taxing Unit to attempt to force new growth to pay for itself.
Steinsnyder said he’s not aware of any government entity that has crafted that approach and he’s certain it would hold up, legally.
But the attorney did note that impact fees for capital fire projects have not been increased in numerous years.