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County to trim fire service payments

Officials say that with fewer unincorporated residents in High Point, it is unfair for the county to pay the same amount.

Published June 24, 2004

CLEARWATER - After months of negotiations with city officials, Pinellas County intends to cut the amount it pays for fire service near Pinellas Park and Largo.

Officials for the two cities expressed surprise Wednesday at the county plan to pay less than the full cost of maintaining two fire stations in the High Point area come fall.

County officials outlined a new strategy in a two-page memo that calls for paying a percentage of the cities' total fire budgets that matches the percentage of unincorporated residents living in those areas.

County officials say the new approach is necessary to keep pace with aggressive annexation policies practiced by both cities, as well as St. Petersburg, in the High Point area, which is west of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport between Ulmerton Road and Roosevelt Boulevard.

With fewer unincorporated residents living in the area, county officials say they shouldn't fully pay for two fire stations.

The current plan has Pinellas paying Pinellas Park $1.4-million to run High Point Station 36 and $842,000 to serve unincorporated residents in the city's other fire districts. That's about $2.2-million.

In Largo, Pinellas pays $1.56-million to run High Point Station 40 and $1.85-million for the city's unincorporated residents in other fire districts - or about $3.42-million.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said the increase of High Point residents choosing to annex into the cities has created an "inequitable tax situation" that unfairly places the cost burden on the county.

Under the new plan, Pinellas would pay Pinellas Park $2,105,990, or $112,407 less than under the original contract, for all unincorporated residents. The county would pay Largo $3,190,482, or $226,249 less. The cities would pick up the difference to run the two stations.

County commissioners this week directed the staff to include the new payment strategy in next year's budget, which would be approved this summer and take effect in October.

"The unincorporated folks should pay (only) their fair share," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "That's not happening."

Largo City Manager Steven Stanton said he expects the county will live up to the terms of the original 10-year contract, approved in 1999.

"The people in High Point area should not have to pay for the inefficiencies of this contract negotiated by the county," Stanton said. "The people who need to pay for the inefficiencies is Pinellas County. They need to find some other funding source. But that funding source will not be the Largo taxpayer because that was not what we negotiated."

Stanton said he wanted to talk about annexation during negotiations on the first contract, but the county declined.

Chief Assistant County Administrator Gay Lancaster said the county isn't changing the contract. It is recalculating a formula, and county attorneys say that is acceptable.

Lancaster said the city is receiving taxes from the High Point residents who are annexed into Largo, and a portion of those taxes should be used to cover the fire district.

Pinellas Park has been working together with the county on a new arrangement, and in a good-faith gesture, the city even sent Pinellas a check this year for $100,000 to cover a part of the difference.

But Wednesday, Pinellas Park officials were puzzled by what they saw, saying it wasn't what they had negotiated.

"We thought we had pretty much settled this year," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said. But Caddell was unable to comment on the effect of the changes.

"At this point, we really don't know what effect it's going to have long term," Caddell said.

- Times staff writer Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 24, 2004, 01:00:37]

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