Fees for ambulance service and pet licenses could go up in the next fiscal year under a recommendation prepared by Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard.
Woodard made his recommendations for changes in fees charged for county services during a workshop Tuesday. His recommendations would not become final until the 2016-17 budget is passed in September. If they pass, they will go into effect Oct. 1.
Under Woodard’s proposal, the fee for ambulance services would see at least three changes. Emergency transportation by a Sunstar ambulance would rise from a base price of $589.94 to $640. That’s about an 8.5 percent increase. The county, which owns the Sunstar name, contracts with a private, for-profit company, Paramedics Plus, to provide ambulance service in Pinellas.
Woodard is also recommending that the county create a new category for nonemergency transportation. One such example would be ambulance service from a hospital to a rehabilitation center. Currently, that is billed as if it were emergency service. Under Woodard’s proposal, the nonemergency ride would be $600, a $10.06 or 1.7 percent more. That is an increase, but county staff pointed out that it’s not as much of an increase as if the user was paying the new emergency rate.
Staff also pointed out that the burden of the higher fees will fall on few consumers. Only about 2 percent of patients who use an ambulance pay for the service themselves. The other 98 percent are funded by insurance or the state and federally tax-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs. Woodard expects the fee changes will generate about $920,000 more for the emergency medical services budget.
County Commissioner Dave Eggers questioned the amount of the increase, wanting to know if it’s necessary in order to maintain the $131.9 million EMS fund.
“This would be required to maintain the health of the fund,” Woodard said.
Also increasing would be the subscription to the Sunstar FirstCare Ambulance Membership Plan, which limits out-of-pocket expenses for uninsured portions of Sunstar ambulance bills for medically necessary transports.
Individual plans cost $61.35 annually now. That would rise about 3 percent to $63 annually. A family membership is $95.43, and that would increase to $98 a year. The county estimates that would bring in an additional $50,000 a year.
Fees for three-year pet licenses would also go up under Woodard’s proposal. As it is now, pet owners are charged $20 for a one-year license and $20 for a three-year license. That was done to encourage pet owners to license their pets. Woodard wants the fee for a one-year license to remain at $20. The fee for the three-year license would double to $40. He estimated that would bring in an additional $860,000 in revenue. Of that, $224,000 would go to hiring an additional veterinarian, a veterinary technician and an assistant. Currently, Pinellas County Animal Services has one veterinarian, five vet techs and no assistants.
Woodard is also recommending that car rental companies who are based at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport pay more for the spaces they rent for their cars. The companies are paying $10 a month for each space. Woodard wants to hike that to $60 per month per space. The airport has about 168 spaces devoted to car rental companies. Woodard is also recommending the county charge $4 per day to people who rent cars at the airport. Currently, there is no surcharge.
Woodard estimated the increased and new fees would bring in another $2.4 million to the airport budget. That money could be used to help fund massive construction projects planned for the airport. Among those are $9.8 million for rehabilitation of the taxiways, $9.4 million for terminal improvements, $12 million for a parking lot expansion, and $7.3 million for other changes including an automated baggage system. The Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies are expected to contribute to the costs of some of the projects.