Unincorporated areas forge alliance
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
LEALMAN -- The scene was reminiscent of a singles mixer -- folks wearing name badges searching earnestly for common ground to perhaps form a long-term relationship.
But instead of setting dinner dates, the 13 participants found enough in common to form a group to represent residents of unincorporated Pinellas in front of county commissioners, state legislators and congressional leaders. Members will meet again July 20 to set their agenda and discuss how to attract more members.
"Being unincorporated, we do not have a voice in what is going on," said Scott Fisher, president of the Old Palm Harbor Community Association. "We need to stick together because we're all unincorporated Pinellas County and united we're much stronger."
At first glance, annexation would seem to be the only glue that binds the various areas of the county. They're all against it.
Otherwise, they seem to have little shared experience. Lealman is worried about garbage rates. Palm Harbor wants sidewalks. Unincorporated Seminole believes the cities are misrepresenting the benefits of annexation.
The commonality, said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association and one of the organizers of the meeting, is the larger issue of basic services.
"If this thing is going to succeed, then we have to be able to raise ourselves above the fray, pick up big issues," Neri said. "We need to be addressing policies of the county ... (the) policy of annexation and how we want the county to serve us."
The concept of organizing residents of unincorporated Pinellas has been kicked around for the past several months by Neri and Al Redman, an activist from unincorporated Seminole.
The idea gained traction as the relationship between the county and the cities deteriorated.
Some of that tension was first seen at last month's American Assembly, a countywide confab meant to start a dialogue that eventually would alleviate flashpoints such as annexation. Despite vows of understanding and future meetings, the discussions were sometimes acrimonious. The meetings haven't happened.
"All I heard is Tierra Verde is not paying our fair share," said Geri Raja, a former officer with that area's homeowners association. During the assembly, cities said that unincorporated residents are getting an unfair share of county and city services at low or no cost.
After the assembly, city representatives upped the rhetoric. Largo City Manager Steve Stanton has accused the county sheriff of using city taxpayers to help pay for patrols in the unincorporated areas.
In Pinellas Park, City Manager Jerry Mudd is studying what it costs the city when nonresidents use city recreational facilities.
When the County Commission moved annexation planning borders to temporarily protect Lealman, Pinellas Park and Seminole objected. Kenneth City has said it will sue if mediation does not restore its planning area. Largo last week said it will take Kenneth City's side in the legal battle.
Neri and Redman figured the cities had clout because they are organized entities that have elected representatives who speak for them. "The only way we're ever going to get anywhere is to present them with a common, solid face," Neri said. "We can show them a whole new reality of political power."
So they called a meeting of activists from across the county -- Tierra Verde, Lealman, unincorporated Seminole and Palm Harbor -- to act as a core group.
They also asked former Kenneth City Mayor Harold Paxton to join them. Paxton, who has been sympathetic to Lealman's problems, accepted because "it disturbs me the way the cities are trying to take over the cherry-picking (annexations) of the communities without paying attention to the people."
He added, "It bothers me that the county residents pay taxes, too, and I don't think that (they) get the benefit of (their) taxes."
Neri said he was pleased by the meeting and hoped that the idea takes off.
"If we're right, it will grow," Neri said. "If we're wrong, it will die. And rightly so."
If you're interested
The Unincorporated County Association of Pinellas will hold its second meeting 9 a.m. July 20 at Denny's, 4999 34th St. N, Lealman. If you want information, call:
Geri Raja, 866-2614
Scott Fisher, 784-2345
Al Redman, 391-9098
Karl G. Maier, 393-4464
Harold Paxton, 544-8974
John Frank, 527-2364
Ray Neri, 527-5352
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