tampabay.com

Ruling removes limit on annexing

lealman The court strikes down an ordinance that had protective zones.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007


Negotiations just got more urgent and confusing for some members of a task force charged with finding a solution to the annexation woes in mid Pinellas.

The reason: A state appeals court last Wednesday struck down a county ordinance that helped protect the unincorporated Lealman area from annexation.

The ordinance had drawn annexation zones, or "boxes," around cities. Each city was free to do voluntary annexations within its own box without clashing with another municipality. There were also boxes that protected parts of the unincorporated area from annexation. Lealman was in one of those no-annexation zones.

The decision comes at a time when the Legislature has ordered representatives of the Lealman Fire District, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Seminole and Kenneth City to work out their issues.

One problem is the effect of annexation on the Lealman Fire District. The district loses when property is annexed away because, in many cases, the Fire Department still has to provide first-response service but receives no tax money for it. That puts a heavier tax burden on Lealman residents who are not annexed.

Another problem is with annexation itself. Many activists in Lealman would like to see the area free from any type of annexation. That is in part because of the effect on tax rates, but also because they do not want to see the community fragmented bit by bit.

With Lealman's protective box gone, "it's scary because we're wide open," said Becky Harriman, head of the fire commission. "I'm in hopes that we'll continue with the task force and continue on the line the (Pinellas County Legislative) Delegation laid out for us."

As far as Pinellas Park and Seminole are concerned, the task force will continue its work.

"We're still at the table. We're still negotiating," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said.

What might change, however, is the definition and separation of the issues. Until now, annexation and fire service delivery have been so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.

The fire district representatives, in particular, have talked at task force meetings about establishing annexation boundaries and receiving compensation for first-response service to annexed properties.

But now, with the boxes gone, the cities may be less inclined to talk about no-annexation zones with the district. And, in any case, there seems to be some general agreement that it's not the fire district's job to negotiate annexation issues.

The argument goes this way: Fire commissioners were elected to oversee the fire budget. Annexation does affect the budget, but that means only that their negotiations should center around payment for providing services to the cities.

Setting annexation policy belongs elsewhere - with the county or even the Legislature.

"I do not believe the Legislature gives the fire board authority to make decisions on annexation issues," said state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole. The task force was Long's brainchild.

Caddell agreed, saying that the annexation issue is much broader than Lealman. That issue encompasses all of Pinellas as cities and the county ready themselves to deal without annexation boxes.

"It's a different picture now," Caddell said.

The issue, Long said, is complicated and is crying out for leadership. But Long said she wants to hear from the community.

She and state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and County Commissioner Ken Welch have set up a town hall meeting at Dixie Hollins High School on Oct. 18 to gather information from Lealman residents about annexation and other issues.

"We have to include people in the process," Welch said. The question is how to do that. Welch did not rule out the possibility of having citizen representation at the table during these discussions.

But that's not a popular idea with the cities. Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler, that city's representative on the task force, has resisted holding the town meeting.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds said citizen activists from unincorporated communities should not be at the table. It's the county's job, he said, to represent those people.

He agreed that because commissioners are elected countywide, they represent residents of cities and those in unincorporated areas. But Edmunds said that when it comes to specific issues such as annexation, county commissioners "have demonstrated that they feel obligated to represent the unincorporated area, and that's fine."

It's hard to understand why city officials who are elected by the people in their own municipality and listen to those folks would be so reluctant to give ear to the residents in the unincorporated area. Perhaps they're afraid of what they might hear.

But in this case, they need to take a chance and let the everyday people of the county who are most affected by these decisions participate in creating the future of this county and its many communities.