Why will Pasco County be providing emergency service to a Hillsborough community?

Why will Pasco County be providing emergency service to a Hillsborough community?

TAMPA — Pebble Creek, a small community in unincorporated Hillsborough County surrounded almost entirely by the city of Tampa, will now get its fire service from … Pasco County?

Tampa and Hillsborough leaders have fought for almost a year over Pebble Creek, which has been cut off from the rest of unincorporated Hillsborough since the annexation of New Tampa. Tampa Fire Rescue has serviced the community since 1998, but the city demanded more money, from $217,928 annually to $1.4 million.

Hillsborough balked at the cost. Months of negotiations ended with the county offering $500,000 and the city asking for $1.1 million. The two sides were at loggerheads — a position Hillsborough County officials and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn have found themselves in often lately.

Enter Pasco County, which said it can do the job for $275,000. This week, Hillsborough County commissioners approved the agreement with their northern neighbors.

Hillsborough commissioner Victor Crist, who represents that part of the county, said some residents are anxious about the change. But there’s no reason to be, he said.

“Folks are going to get the same quality service, the same high-performance response time, the same everything we’re accustomed to,” Crist said. “The only difference is a different provider for a lot less money.”

Pebble Creek’s 7,600 residents live just south of the Hillsborough-Pasco border, and the fire rescue station that will service the area is about the same distance as the Tampa station that previously did the work.

Pasco County will add a second ambulance to that fire station by March 1 to handle the increased call volume. There are about 2.3 calls per day from that community.

One advantage for Pebble Creek residents: Pasco charges less for an ambulance ride than Tampa. A trip in the back of a Pasco ambulance is $600 plus $10 per mile from pickup to the hospital; Tampa’s rate is $772.50 plus $12.36 per mile.

“We have a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure that transition is seamless,” said Pasco Fire Rescue Chief Scott Cassin.

Still, it’s an odd arrangement. It’s the first time anyone can remember that Hillsborough contracted with Pasco to provide a government service for its residents.

Buckhorn said this is about protecting Tampa taxpayers. He said a city analysis found that 40 percent of New Tampa fire station runs went to Pebble Creek, costing the city more than it was getting.

“We were willing to do that, but we needed to be compensated appropriately,” Buckhorn said.

But Hillsborough officials think the city inflated the costs and believe they have just the man who knows that to be true: county fire Chief Dennis Jones, who previously held the same title for Tampa Fire Rescue.

“The city was being totally unreasonable with their demands,” Crist said.

The spat is the latest between Buckhorn and the County Commission in a growing chasm between the two.

It started in 2015, when county commissioners rejected a sales tax hike that would have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the city’s transportation systems. Buckhorn can’t raise the sales tax in the city, so he needed the county to take action. After two years of deliberation, they voted against it and left Tampa with nothing.

Buckhorn accused commissioners of lacking “political courage.”

Other issues have since popped up. They fought over a federal affordable housing grant. Buckhorn called out commissioners for not immediately removing a Confederate monument this summer from the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa.

Buckhorn vexed county officials during Hurricane Irma when he called for an emergency evacuation of the city before county shelters were open and instituted a curfew. The county said that was beyond the mayor’s emergency authority.

For years, turf wars between the county and city were common, even over trivial matters. The first six years of Buckhorn’s tenure saw an improvement in relations between the two governments, whose headquarters are just a few blocks from each other in downtown Tampa.

Lately, it feels like a return to the old days.

Buckhorn said he has a good relationship with County Administrator Mike Merrill but is frustrated when priorities move to the seven-member commission.

“There have been some bumps in the road where they have proven to be unreliable partners,” Buckhorn said. “But I’m also a pragmatic guy, and if there’s a deal that’s in the best interest of our constituents, there’s no hard feelings.”

Crist blamed Buckhorn for the deteriorating relationship and said the mayor burned bridges with the way he attacked commissioners after the sales tax vote.

“It’s the city being contentious with the county,” Crist said. “The mayor has been less patient and less willing to work with the county than he was prior to the transportation initiative.”

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.