Should Palm Harbor be a city?
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
PALM HARBOR -- Scott Fisher would like to incorporate Palm Harbor into its own city, complete with its own town hall, elected officials and administrators, and he has been shopping the idea around town.
So far, few are buying.
Fisher, as president of the Old Palm Harbor Community Association, has drafted a feasibility study contending that incorporation would benefit residents. Becoming a city, he says, would protect local tax dollars from going to Pinellas County and create a more responsive municipal government.
According to Fisher, the study was generated in response to requests from Palm Harbor residents. But when asked directly, Fisher has difficulty coming up with anyone who is in favor of incorporating Palm Harbor.
"Yeah, there doesn't appear to be a lot of supporters for incorporation," said Fisher, 44. "But that's because they have been told over and over again that your taxes will go up if you form the city of Palm Harbor."
Others have a different explanation.
"It's a one-man show," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who lives in Palm Harbor. "It's one man's opinion. This is Scott Fisher, period, doing this. He doesn't represent the community."
Fisher said he crunched budget figures and believes taxes might even go down if Palm Harbor incorporates.
Since Palm Harbor is an unincorporated area, residents get their government services from the county, which has its main offices in downtown Clearwater. That's a problem, Fisher said.
"We don't want to travel between two cities to get to our local government," he said. "There is a lot of discontent out there, an undercurrent of people who are not happy with what's going on out there."
He would like to get as many people as he can to read the study and hold a referendum in November asking residents if they would support the plan.
"I'm saying let's get this information out and let's find out just how many people would support it," Fisher said. "I mean, the report just came out. I think it's a little premature now to say there is no support out there."
But community leaders say that's exactly the case.
"I don't know where this is coming from," said state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who has declined to sponsor a bill in the Legislature calling for a local referendum on the issue. "Other than Scott, and I'm sure he means well, there is no outcry in the community for something like this."
People who live and work in Palm Harbor say they are more than satisfied with the attention the area is getting from Pinellas County.
The county "absolutely is not ignoring us," said Ken Peluso, who is chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, which oversees Palm Harbor's recreation department and library. "I put a phone call into the county, and I get a call back relatively soon. I never have to wait."
Pinellas officials also say the county has not ignored Palm Harbor.
"I think Palm Harbor has certainly been the beneficiary of some very direct county attention," said Gay Lancaster, assistant county administrator. "To say that the county is not paying attention to Palm Harbor is an inaccurate statement."
Lancaster listed several county projects that have benefited Palm Harbor.
There are road improvements, such as the $700,000 project to improve the intersection of Nebraska Avenue and U.S. 19 and the $5.9-million Belcher Road extension between Tampa and Alderman roads. There also is the $350,000 project to build an activity center in downtown Palm Harbor and the $295,000 spent to renovate the historic White Chapel.
In all, the county is planning to spend $2.3-million to improve the downtown area and attract more people to the businesses on Florida Avenue.
"I think the county runs Palm Harbor well enough as it is," said Walt Blenner, president of the nonprofit group Old Palm Harbor Main Street. "I think people who live in the unincorporated area known as Palm Harbor are very proud of our community."
Fisher's study makes some incorrect assumptions and underestimates what it would cost to create a new city, Latvala said. For example, she said, Fisher mentions acquiring the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center, the activity building currently under construction and the newly renovated White Chapel from the county to be used as city offices.
"He doesn't have accurate facts and figures," Latvala said. "An assumption he made is that the county's property would automatically go to this city. Over my dead body. We are not going to give county assets to them, or him."
Critics also say that Fisher doesn't even live in Palm Harbor and that his home and property on 11th Street are uninhabitable.
On Friday, a judge found Fisher guilty of accumulating trash on his property. He could face up to $1,000 in fines. He also is facing another violation that his property has substandard housing.
Fisher said he lives on his 11th Street house even though it does not have a working telephone line or bathroom and he is in the process of redoing his kitchen. At times, he said, he sleeps over at his family's property in Hillsborough County.
He said he is in the process of improving his Palm Harbor property and felt that the charges were unfair.
About a year ago, Fisher asked the county to rezone his home from residential to professional, a designation that would allow him to build offices such as for attorneys, doctors and accountants on his property. Some of his neighbors opposed the proposal and the county denied the request.
That, Latvala said, could explain why Fisher is looking to create a city government.
"He's been mad ever since," Latvala said.
Fisher denied that and said he just wants to improve the area for residents.
"We are sending a lot of money to the county that is not coming back to our area," Fisher said.
Fisher, who was born and raised in Miami, moved to Ozona in 1980. He is a computer programmer and database expert who studied landscape technology at a community college in South Florida.
Fisher did most of the work on the study. When asked about his qualifications for doing such a report, he said he has an accounting background and has reviewed the budgets of several cities. He said he based his work on the Lealman area feasibility study, which is available on the county's Web site.
The study can be found at the Old Palm Harbor Community Association Web site at http://web.tampabay.rr.com/oldpalmharbor.
-- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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