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Cost of fire service only issue remaining with task force

But payment for fire services is a sticky point with residents.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


Members of an annexation task force took annexation boundaries off the table, leaving unresolved only issues of the amount Lealman would be paid for providing fire service to properties annexed from within its fire district.

"We're making good progress," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said Friday. If the task force can settle the questions of the amount of reimbursement and how long the Lealman district will receive payments, then the task force's job would be done, he said.

Welch is chairman of the task force that was created by the Legislature to help solve issues arising from annexation in the unincorporated Lealman area. The task force is due to report to the Pinellas legislative delegation sometime in November.

The Lealman Fire District is funded strictly by property taxes and has suffered when cities have annexed properties from within its borders. The fire department has maintained first response service to many of those properties even though it lost the tax revenue to the annexing city. The result has been to increase the tax burden on Lealman residents who were not annexed.

When the task force was created, it appeared that setting boundaries within which the cities could not annex would be one of the main issues. But at Friday's meeting, participants agreed that the fire commission was not elected to handle annexation. That, they said, is the job of the Pinellas County Commission. Fire commissioners could only negotiate the amount of money, if any, the annexing cities would pay Lealman for providing first-response service to annexed properties.

Negotiators for St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Lealman concurred that any agreement would last for 15 years. During that time, Lealman would provide first response service to annexed lands. At some time before the 15 years expires, Lealman voters would get a chance to decide if they wanted the fire district to be dissolved.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park wanted to pay Lealman only for eight years of the 15-year agreement. And they wanted to pay Lealman less than it cost the district to provide service. The effect would be to increase the tax burden on Lealman residents who would have to pay the difference between the city payments and the actual cost. The taxpayers would then be stuck for the entire cost of providing service to those city properties for the last seven years of the 15-year contract.

Lealman wanted the cities to pay what it cost the district to provide fire and emergency services. Negotiators seemed willing to allow the payments to lapse after eight years.

That outraged John Frank, a former Lealman fire commissioner, who said, "All I've seen in this task force is how much the residents of Lealman will subsidize the neighboring cities for fire service. ... The individuals in Lealman have no rights. They are merely fodder for the cities to annex to bring taxes into their coffers."

Task force members will report to their various councils and commissions. The task force will meet again next month to see if the last differences can be ironed out. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 18.

[Last modified September 30, 2007, 00:55:22]

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