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City says 27 signed annexation agreement

The properties include residences and restaurants.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007


Pinellas Park says it has 27 landowners in the Lealman area who have already signed annexation agreements with the city.

The properties are mostly residential, but include at least two tax-rich businesses - Red Lobster at 6151 34th St. N and McDonald's at 5400 66th St. N. The 27 parcels total about 6.2 acres and have a total assessed value of about $4.5-million.

Those in-hand annexations add fuel to a battle that has raged in mid county over the past decade or so about annexation and its financial effect on Lealman residents.

Negotiations designed to solve the problems resume today with a proposal that could see Lealman taxpayers receiving another blow to the pocketbook. They could end up paying to provide fire service to St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

And if the two cities have their way, the solution to mid county's annexation dilemma could ultimately mean the end of the independent Lealman fire district.

On the table is a Lealman fire district proposal for a 20-year agreement that would have annexing cities pay a portion of the fire taxes on annexed property to the fire district. The amount would be less than Lealman taxpayers are charged for the same service and Lealman property owners would have to make up the difference.

Jon Kieffer, the St. Petersburg attorney who is the mediator for the annexation task force, has asked all the members cities to consider Lealman's proposal and to make a list of what they're willing to accept. He also wants the city representatives to provide counterproposals for any item they are unwilling to accept.

One likely city proposal is the eventual elimination of the Lealman Fire District. St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park say the district is not financially viable in the long term.

The discussion is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. in Room 202, Park Station, 5851 Park Blvd. The annexation task force meeting is open to the public.

The task force is the brainchild of the Florida Legislature. Voting members include officials from the Lealman Fire District, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Pinellas County. Representatives from Seminole and Kenneth City also sit on the board but do not have votes.

The problem centers on the unincorporated Lealman area, which generally runs from I-275 to Park Street at the Seminole city limits between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. Kenneth City divides it into an east and west portion. The area is one of the poorest in Pinellas, but pays some of the highest taxes, especially to the fire district.

As annexations have eroded the tax base, property owners who are not annexed are forced to shoulder an increasingly larger tax burden to maintain the fire district. In many cases, the Lealman Fire Department has remained the first responder to those annexed lands.

The Legislature passed a temporary bill about five years ago, which forced cities that annexed into Lealman to temporarily pay the fire district for lands they annexed. Each year since, lobbyists from Lealman have asked the Legislature to either make the bill permanent or extend it. Cities have lobbied the Legislature to let the bill sunset.

Legislators who were tired of the argument responded by forming the annexation task force. Task force members are scheduled to report their solution, if any, to the Pinellas Legislative delegation this fall. Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, has promised that if task force members can't settle the issues among themselves, the Legislature will.

The Lealman proposal is similar to its contract with Kenneth City. Lealman provides fire service to the town at a lower cost than it provides the same service to its own taxpayers.

Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham has said that's because it is better for the district to get some money than have Kenneth City sign a contract with another municipality. If that happened, Lealman would still be first responder into Kenneth City but would get no money for the service.

Under Lealman's proposal to all four cities, it would remain the first responder into annexed properties for 20 years. During that time, the city would pay Lealman the tax money that it would use to provide fire service to that annexed property. The agreement would automatically renew at the end of 20 years unless the city notifies the district otherwise a year before the contract ends.

Under Lealman's current 4.3-mill tax rate, the fire district receives about $18,300 a year in taxes.

If Pinellas Park annexed all those properties, it would receive about $22,500 in taxes from its current 4.9788-mill tax rate.

Pinellas Park estimates fire service costs about 2 mills of its overall taxes. Under Lealman's proposal, the city would pay the fire district about 40 percent of the taxes on those properties, or about $9,000.

But because fire service to those properties actually costs Lealman about $18,300, the property owners in Lealman would be responsible for the shortfall, or about $9,300.