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    Cove Cay incentives violate law, county says

    The county attorney says the incentives for annexation, including putting fire-safe windows on 40 condominium units, violate Florida's Constitution. Largo officials disagree.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 12, 2003


    LARGO -- Debate over whether Cove Cay, a posh golf course community, should annex became more heated Friday when county lawyers said Largo is illegally offering to spend public money for the benefit of private citizens.

    Largo's offer to spend $225,000 on incentives, including fire-safe windows on 40 units, violates the state's Constitution, county lawyers said. The Constitution says public money must be used for a public purpose.

    "It is a violation," said County Attorney Susan Churuti. "There are some exemptions (to the public purpose rule.) It doesn't fit any of the exemptions."

    But Largo's city manager disagreed.

    "The county speaks with many voices, and the county's got a substantial interest in making sure this annexation does not go forward," said Steven Stanton.

    The county and the city already have disagreed over how much Cove Cay residents would save if they join Largo. The city says residents would save $16.78 per year in taxes and fees, while the county puts the figure at $7.57.

    In discussing the issue, Stanton also said Largo Mayor Bob Jackson gave incorrect information on how the city would pay for the incentives. Stanton said the incentives would be paid from the city's general fund, not from surcharges paid by people who live outside the city but use Largo's services, as Jackson had said.

    "Sometimes the mayor has been confused on this topic," Stanton said. "The mayor's not the one who puts the budgets together. I am."

    Stanton said Churuti and her staff are wrong because putting fire-safe windows on Cove Cay's 40 units in a 10-story building is a public safety issue. He pointed to the fire last year in Clearwater's Dolphin Cove, and said Largo wants to avoid such dangers.

    "We go into people's homes and give out smoke detectors," Stanton said. "Our fire department and police department give child restraint seats to people ... It's the way we do business in Largo, especially when it comes to public safety."

    But County Administrator Steve Spratt said such programs aren't the same.

    "Typically those are broadly applied to the general public," Spratt said. "That is not the situation here."

    Churuti's staff researched the issue at Spratt's request. Spratt said he thinks the incentives are "inappropriate."

    "They've taken the concept of incentives too far," he said.

    But Spratt said he's not sure what, if any, action the county will take to try to stop the Cove Cay referendum, set for Jan. 21. He plans to discuss that question with commissioners, he said.

    The county also questioned whether Largo could use money from its sewer surcharge funds on annexation incentives, rather than for providing sewer service. Asked about that argument, Stanton said the incentive money would come from the city's general fund.

    "There's no sewer money in this project," Stanton said.

    Another Largo official, Lou Hilton, the city's annexation program planner, has said no tax money would be used for the incentives. But the city's $50-million general fund includes about $8-million in property taxes.

    Was there a discrepancy? Stanton said no.

    "Lou is trying to convey, in very simple terms, that property taxes are not being raised for this," Stanton said.

    Stanton also said it's not fair to say that property taxes are helping fund the incentives. He compared it to spending money from your weekly paycheck and not knowing whether the money spent was earned on Monday or Wednesday.

    "The particular expense is not tied to a particular revenue dollar," he said.

    -- Lisa Greene can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or greene@sptimes.com.

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