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County seeks fair fix in funding fire services

Its proposal would abolish the High Point fire district and turn it over to Pinellas Park and Largo.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004

PINELLAS PARK - The city has put off hiring seven new firefighters in the wake of a county plan to change the way fire service is handled in the unincorporated High Point area.

County officials say that because of annexations by Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg, High Point's unincorporated residents have been left with a higher tax burden to keep the fire district running.

The county pays Pinellas Park and Largo to provide fire protection in High Point, including both incorporated and unincorporated areas. But Dwaine Booth, the deputy director of the county fire services administration, said the cost for that service has fallen only on those property owners who have not been annexed. Their taxes have increased as they paid, in effect, for their own fire protection and for the service received by some city residents.

Under the new proposal, the county would abolish the High Point fire district and turn it over to Pinellas Park and Largo. Those cities would be responsible for collecting the tax money from residents in both municipal and unincorporated portions of High Point. The change would occur Oct. 1, 2005.

"The district cannot sustain itself any longer," Largo City Manager Steve Stanton said.

Stanton said the county needs to negotiate the delivery of all services in the High Point area with the three cities. The discussions, he said, should not be limited to fire service.

Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson has not decided how to respond to the county proposal. The city could negotiate a new contract, he said, or even give up its Fire Station 36, which covers the eastern High Point area.

If the city leaves High Point, it will have to absorb that station's 15 firefighters, a fire inspector, a deputy chief and a fire administrator. Gustafson would prefer to avoid that option, but in the meantime he has taken the precaution of a temporary hiring freeze.

Pinellas Park officials estimate it could increase the city's fire expenses by $462,545 a year. To meet that obligation, they said, city property taxes might have to go up.

Largo would lose an estimated $262,818 a year in county funding, according to county figures.

Property owners in unincorporated High Point could see their property taxes go down as a result of the change.

The High Point Volunteer Fire Control District was established in 1978 in the unincorporated area that abuts the bay north of Pinellas Park and east of Largo.

In 1984, the county divided the district in two. Pinellas Park agreed to provide fire service to the eastern portion and Largo, the west. At the time, the entire district was unincorporated.

In the past 20 years, Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg have annexed sizable chunks of High Point, but the fire service arrangement has remained intact.

Booth conceded that Pinellas Park and Largo have been paid twice for fire service - by the county and by the new residents the cities had annexed.

County records show that in the Pinellas Park section of High Point, the unincorporated property is worth 54.2 percent of the total value but pays 100 percent of the costs.

In the Largo section, the unincorporated land represents 67.5 percent of the total property value but pays 100 percent of the costs for Fire Station 40.

Both Stanton and Gustafson said they were aware of the problem but that it was offset by the number of times Largo and Pinellas Park engines run calls into those areas.

"It needs to be fixed. It really does," Gustafson said.

It's not just the High Point area that has a funding problem, he said. It's any unincorporated fire district that has a city annexing into it.

But it is unclear what the solution might be, Gustafson said. And he's unsure Pinellas Park needs to be a part of the discussions, at least where High Point is concerned. The city, he said, has very little property in the area.

Stanton said the solution lies in more annexation and in everyone realizing that it is more cost-effective to be part of a city.

[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]

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