Pinellas Park can't rein in noisemaker
The city has no control over the Pinellas Park Water Management District. What is that entity, you say?
By ANNE LINDBERG
Published October 19, 2005
PINELLAS PARK - Emotions ran high toward the end of the last City Council meeting as horse owners begged for help and officials insisted that they could do nothing.
At issue: work on a drainage ditch behind Southern Star Stables on 94th Avenue N. Among other things, the crash of falling trees, roar of steam shovels and pounding of other heavy equipment is upsetting the horses at the barn.
Barn owner Gail Larson and her boarders want the work stopped or somehow contained.
The work, council members repeatedly said last Thursday, has nothing to do with the city. It is being done by the Pinellas Park Water Management District, over which the city has no control.
It wasn't the first time someone has been upset with the district, which includes parts of Pinellas Park, Lealman and unincorporated Pinellas.
A few years ago, the Bayou Club tried to secede from the district.
"It's very hard for me to explain to the public that it's two separate entities," Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler said.
So, what is this group that flies under the radar for many residents?
The short answer is that it's an independent body that collects 3 mills of taxes each year from the property owners who live within its borders. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value. That means a property owner whose home is assessed at $125,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $300 in taxes.
PPWMD takes that money - about $5.6-million this year - and spends about 70 percent of it to clean drainage ditches, build canals and otherwise prevent flooding in most of Pinellas Park and parts of unincorporated Pinellas County. The other 30 percent goes to run the district in the form of salaries and other costs.
The Pinellas Park City Council appoints two of PPWMD's three volunteer board members. Pinellas County appoints the third because the district includes unincorporated area. It is the second government entity created to solve flooding issues in the Pinellas Park area, executive director Richard Kusmierczyk said.
The first was the Pinellas Park Drainage District. Kusmierczyk was unclear when that body was created, but it lived for 50 years before shutting down. It was responsible for digging parts of the Cross Bayou Canal.
The county and Pinellas Park were supposed to take over drainage in the area, but that never happened, Kusmierczyk said. The area continued to flood, and citizens asked the Legislature for help. The water management board was the Legislature's solution.
In 1976, voters in the area, by a 2.5-1 ratio, agreed to create the PPWMD and tax themselves 3 mills to solve flooding. The wide margin of approval, Kusmierczyk said, was probably because of a major rainstorm a few months before the election.
"We used to be under water for days," he said.
The boundaries of the area were decided by the flow of water. Areas like Lealman and what is now the Bayou Club that "contribute" water are in the district.
PPWMD became organized and began its first project in 1979. On May 8 of that year, a massive storm resulted in a foot of water flowing across 66th Street N at about 86th Avenue. The flooding was so bad, Kusmierczyk said, that one of the City Council members stood in the floodwater to direct traffic.
By authorizing the water agency to raise taxes, the voters made it independent of city or county control. That caused some friction between the city and PPWMD until recent years. The two groups now coordinate their efforts.
But that does not mean the city is entirely happy with the agency. City officials look forward to the day when the PPWMD can be retired and Pinellas Park can take over the city portion of the drainage system.
It's unclear when that might be. Kusmierczyk said the PPWMD has five more projects to complete. But Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said "conversations" are being held with county officials to determine what responsibility each will assume when the agency is no more.
"We're just looking at it, trying to figure out how it can be done," Gustafson said.
But he agreed that's quite a few years away.
Others have been unhappy with the PPWMD. When the Bayou Club tried to secede a few years ago, then-state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, suggested the two set up a committee to see if things could be worked out. That movement died.
The few Lealman residents who are subject to the tax grumble about the situation. But no organized resistance has formed.
[Last modified October 19, 2005, 00:30:20]
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