tampabay.com

Talks will try to thaw annexation cold war

State Rep. Janet Long organizes meetings to "end this standoff" in Pinellas Park.

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published July 14, 2007


PINELLAS PARK - The mouth-watering smell of freshly made popcorn permeated the air. A tray of large-chunk chocolate chip cookies, brownies and candies was laid out on a side counter. Diet Cokes and bottled water were handed out.

Hungry people, after all, can be cranky people, and the subject at hand has made a lot of people angry for a long time.

Three mayors and a vice mayor faced the head of the Lealman Fire Commission across the room. Arrayed down the sides were lawyers and government staff members. Spectators and other staffers were seated against the wall.

The scene was set for the first session in a series of discussions, mandated by the state Legislature, to try to solve the annexation strife that has torn mid Pinellas since the last century.

It lasted less than 15 minutes.

Pinellas County had neglected to send a voting member to the meeting.

"I was told that the meeting was postponed," county Commissioner Ken Welch said Tuesday. "I was intent on coming but we don't vote on our appointment until today."

The group will try again Wednesday.

The task force is the brainchild of state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, who has been besieged by lobbyists from all sides in the disputes.

Long said she wanted to "get all stakeholders together and work on something that would be a win-win for everybody ... to move forward to end this standoff."

The Legislature mandated that all the concerned groups come together and work on a solution that would be taken to the county legislative delegation before next year's session.

Aggressive policies

Annexation has been troublesome in Pinellas County as a whole, but especially in midcounty, where Seminole, Pinellas Park and Largo have had aggressive annexation policies.

The arguments and lawsuits sparked by those policies prompted the county to create annexation planning areas in 2000.

The cities could annex anywhere within those planning areas but could not annex properties from annexation-free zones using the voluntary method. Cities could still annex into those areas by referendum.

Just before the limitations went into effect, Seminole held referendum annexations that took in a large chunk of property that included the western side of Park Street. That area, with a Target, Sears, Otter Key condominiums and the land where a Kohl's is being built, had been in the Lealman Fire District.

Shortchanged?

The annexation took the tax resources from Lealman but left the fire department with first-response service to the area.

The result was that Lealman property owners, who are some of the poorest people in Pinellas, were left footing the fire bill for a portion of Seminole.

That outraged Lealman activists who were trying to improve the area.

At the same time, Pinellas Park was annexing properties one at a time in the eastern section of Lealman. Although the properties were in the city's annexation planning area, Lealman activists complained that Pinellas Park was "cherry picking" tax-rich businesses, thereby taking more tax money out of the area.

St. Petersburg asked, and got, the county to expand its annexation planning area farther into Lealman along the Tyrone-Park Street corridor at the Lighthouse shopping center. The move added to fears that St. Petersburg eventually wanted to annex Joe's Creek Industrial Park.

St. Petersburg officials have not openly indicated they want to do so, but the loss of tax revenue from that annexation could cripple the fire district's budget.

The activists, headed by Ray Neri of the Lealman Community Association, persuaded the County Commission to push back the annexation planning area boundaries to protect the area from further action by Pinellas Park.

That move outraged the cities, and Pinellas Park, Kenneth City, Largo, St. Petersburg and Seminole sued the county, resulting in the standoff Rep. Long is trying to end. That lawsuit is continuing.

Temporary measure

In 2002 the Lealman Fire Commission persuaded then-state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, who represented the area, to get a local bill passed in the state Legislature to protect their tax base. The bill, which was a temporary measure, said that any city annexing property from the Lealman area would have to pay fire taxes to the commission as if the property had never been annexed. The payments would last for five years from the date of annexation.

Since the passage of the "Farkas bill," Lealman firefighters and Pinellas Park lobbyists have spent time in Tallahassee during each legislative session urging that the bill be made permanent or wiped out.

This past session, Long sponsored a bill designed to get all the parties to the table to try to work out these issues. The Long bill created a task force composed of representatives from the Lealman Fire Commission, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Seminole and Kenneth City. Seminole and Kenneth City can take part in the discussions but cannot vote.

Pinellas Park, Kenneth City and Seminole chose their mayors - Bill Mischler, Muriel Whitman and Jimmy Johnson - to be the representatives on the task force. Lealman sent the head of the Fire Commission, Becky Harriman. St. Petersburg sent Deputy Mayor Tish Elston. The county was expected to send Welch.

Firefighters wary

Mischler said Monday that talks had already been taking place between City Manager Mike Gustafson and Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham. Mischler said he thought things could be worked out, but he declined to say what the solution might be.

Mischler did say Pinellas Park is aware that Lealman firefighters fear the loss of their jobs should the district be unable to support itself.

"I have to think of them also," Mischler said. "They have families."

At the same time, he said, Pinellas Park will not back down on its desire to annex new properties. If people want to annex into the city, he said, they should have the right to do so. Mischler said he's unsure why anyone would not want to be in a city.

"Why do we need unincorporated areas?" Mischler asked.

Even if all of Pinellas joined one city or another, there would still be a need for the County Commission, the sheriff and other county services, he said.

At the same time, having property in a city could benefit the owners in the way of "enhancements" such as sidewalks, street lights and paved roads.

"I believe the city of Pinellas Park could offer them more enhancements, but I do not believe in forcing people into the city of Pinellas Park," Mischler said. "That will be up to them."