Mired in city-county power struggle, Lealman waits
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
LEALMAN -- A 21/2-day confab to discuss city-county relations adjourned last month with warm pledges to work out problems.
Days later, the Pinellas Planning Council, a countywide board comprised mostly of representatives from the cities, overwhelmingly rejected a request to help stop annexations in unincorporated Lealman.
During the debate, the city-based members refused to recognize Lealman as a community and the only vote to limit land grabs came from Ken Welch, a Pinellas County commissioner.
Welch said he left the debate with bad feelings about the Pinellas Planning Council's role.
"The negative thing is (that) I walked out of that meeting convinced that the PPC is either unable to or unwilling to advocate for unincorporated residents," Welch said.
On Tuesday, the issue will go before the full Pinellas commission and some city officials fear the county will exert its power on behalf of Lealman by moving annexation planning lines to match fire district boundaries.
The Lealman issue has become a symbol of the larger power struggle and hard feelings between the county and the 24 Pinellas cities.
Money fuels dispute
While most observers concede the cities and the county are at odds, some disagree about the level of emotion.
"I think there are differences in perspective," Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said. "I don't believe it's full-blown animosity."
Welch said he thinks the cities and county agree on more than they argue about. The split is most evident when the topic is unincorporated residents and their amount of say-so.
Many in the unincorporated county are advocating a 25th "city" that would be protected from annexation, would receive services from the county, and use the commission as its governing body, much as city councils and commissions oversee municipalities.
Many municipal representatives at May's American Assembly, which was convened to discuss city-county relations, objected to that idea. They argued that county commissioners cannot wear two hats by representing people who live in cities as well as be the governing body for those in unincorporated areas. There would be a conflict of interest, they said.
Largo City Manager Steve Stanton said that county residents don't pay for the same level of services that city folks do. And Stanton objected to the county using its money to provide some of those services. Parks were one example.
The county provides passive parks for everyone in the county. The cities have provided active parks with such items as ball fields and charged more to nonresidents who want to use them.
Fueling the dispute over the 25th city is money. Cities want to annex freely into unincorporated areas. Active parks are a carrot cities can dangle to attract potential residents.
But some people just want to be left alone and they are helping fuel the discussion of the 25th city and urging the county to act as a "municipal" government by providing the traditional services that incorporated communities enjoy.
One piece of a big puzzle
The same folks are spearheading Lealman's drive to limit annexations there.
Lealman activists have asked the County Commission to move the annexation planning lines to match the fire district lines. While this would not prevent annexations by referendum, it would require County Commission approval for any voluntary annexation in the area.
Earlier this year, the commission voted 7-0 to move the lines. Commissioners referred the item to the Pinellas Planning Council for its recommendation before the commission's final vote. The Pinellas Planning Council, comprised mostly of city representatives, said no.
"The PPC doesn't get it," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association.
Planning council members, he said, ignored the impact of annexations into the area, particularly a land grab by Seminole that took the tax-rich commercial area on the west side of Park Street. That annexation by referendum deprived the area of almost $200,000 in annual tax revenues.
The Pinellas Planning Council also refused to take phone calls from people who wanted to move the lines, he said. The agency only passed on e-mails and written pleas. Even then, Neri said, planning council members ignored the hundreds of signatures on petitions and the pleas of firefighters and others who appeared before they made a decision.
"In the final analysis, we're in a fight for our lives with these cities," Neri said. "The cities are adamant about the county not having any say-so in stopping annexation."
Pinellas Park Council member Rick Butler has spent the past week or so lobbying county commissioners. He wants them to at least table the proposal to move the annexation boundary lines.
Pinellas Park, he said, has agreed not to annex into the area, at least temporarily. That protects Lealman, he said.
The proposed line change is wrong, Butler said, because it doesn't do enough to solve the overall problem.
"It is a very small Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Butler said. "It doesn't solve anything."
The line move does not help the problems in Largo, Clearwater and Seminole, he said. It does not solve the worries of folks in places such as Tierra Verde and Palm Harbor who just want to be left alone. It would be better, Butler said, for the commissioners to sit down and figure out a total solution rather than just dealing with one area.
"Lealman is just one piece of this puzzle," he said. "These are countywide issues."
Any decision the commission makes on Tuesday, Todd agreed, will be temporary until the bigger problems are solved.
The longer-term solution, she said, is for the cities and county to get together and decide the best method for delivering countywide services.
If you go
The Pinellas County Commission will discuss moving annexation boundary lines in the Lealman area at its Tuesday meeting, 9:30 a.m. in the Assembly Room, fifth floor, Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.
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