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Fire service tax deal called unfair split

Many annexation foes oppose paying a higher rate.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published October 21, 2007


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LEALMAN- Angry, bitter and frustrated residents of this unincorporated community had one main message for city, county and state officials: "LEAVE. US. ALONE!"

"We need to be heard just once," Lealman resident Curt Gau said. "We say no to annexation. What part of no don't you understand?"

The scene was the Dixie Hollins High School auditorium, where members of a task force gathered Thursday to hear Lealman residents' reaction to a proposal that would help reduce the financial losses to the area's fire district when property is annexed.

Under the deal, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park would pay the Lealman Fire Department for maintaining first-response service to properties the two cities annex out of the area. But the tax rate that would determine the amount of payment on each parcel of annexed land would be less than the tax rate paid by Lealman property owners. The Lealman property owners would have to make up the difference.

"This is money out of my pocket I'm not willing to pay," Lealman resident Marion Boyle told Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler and St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Tish Elston. "You pay what I pay, or you get yourself another fire department."

Lealman resident Dan Lehman asked, "Why should you steal my car and then make me pay for you to drive it?"

Fire, county and state officials agree that the proposed deal is unfair, but say it is better than the district's receiving no money at all for providing first-response service to annexed properties. In that case, they say, the entire burden would fall on Lealman taxpayers.

But to the more than 300 people that deputies estimated attended the public hearing, the deal is just one more instance of what they see as the cities' ongoing rape of the Lealman taxpayers, who are some of the poorest in Pinellas County.

Among their ongoing grievances: St. Petersburg charges a 25 percent surcharge for water, but takes no responsibility for providing fire hydrants, which are lacking in much of Lealman. St. Petersburg maintains it is the county's responsibility to pay for hydrants. Kenneth City has contracted with the Lealman Fire Department for service, but only pays about a third of what Lealman property owners pay. Pinellas Park's annexations have taken tax money out of the district. The Pinellas Park Water Management District charges Lealman property owners 3 mills on their tax bill, yet does not benefit the community.

The task force did its best to separate the issue of annexation from the problem of financing the fire district as properties are annexed out, but most of the speakers dismissed the distinction. If there were no annexation, they said, there would be no problem with the funding. And, they said, the community has repeatedly told city, county and state officials they want no properties annexed out of their area.

"Why is (annexation) still going on? Why do they get a discount for what we're paying for fire service?" Lealman resident Gary Sutphin asked. "When we in the unincorporated community want a service from the city, we have to pay more."

The crowd cheered. They applauded most of the speakers, only booing once when Betty Trujillo, the lone voice in favor of a change, suggested the district is too small to support the department and that annexation into a city might provided needed services the county has neglected to provide the area. A smattering of applause accompanied the boos.

The crowd's biggest roar of approval came when Ray Neri spoke. Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, has become the de facto leader of the anti-annexation movement in Lealman.

Neri pointed out that the area has several times indicated its desire to be left alone. Now, he said, the Legislature should pass a community protection law that Lealman residents would vote on. If a majority wanted the area to be annexation-free, the Legislature should honor that. The community association, he said, has a petition on its Web site, www.lcafl.com, for residents across the county to fill out. The petitions will be used to persuade legislators to pass a community protection act.

Neri was not the only speaker supporting a community protection law. Others also urged state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, and state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, to help get the idea made into law. Some of those supporters came from outside Lealman.

"We, residents of unincorporated areas, consider ourselves to be victims of political abuse by our state Legislature and by the municipalities who allow the forces of annexation to disturb our peace of mind time and time again," said Arthur Hebert, a resident of the unincorporated Largo area. "A community protection act ... would lower the anxiety, uncertainty and economic stress of the property owners opposing annexation."

It was not only residents of unincorporated areas who rallied to Lealman's cause.

Weldon Burgett of St. Petersburg said he suffered from the effect of annexation when the company he works for was annexed by Largo. The company's taxes increased, he said. Now, the company is looking for a new home in another state and local jobs may be lost.

"The same thing's going to happen to Joe's Creek (Industrial Park)," Burgett said. "I'm appalled and ashamed ... that the city of St. Petersburg who has the most revenue is offering a millage of 1.74."

Burgett also noted that, while Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler was present, the same could not be said of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

Pinellas Park resident Marshall Cook said, "I'm sorry we took anything south of 62nd Avenue," referring to that city's past annexations. "Somebody listen to them, please."

Peter White, another Pinellas Park resident, said, "It's disgraceful what the cities are doing."

Justice, who has spoken at several Lealman gatherings and is familiar with the high emotions surrounding the annexation issue, said of the evening's events, "It was more tempered than I expected."

Some of the speakers, he said, have some misconceptions, but it's clear they all love their community.

Long and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch referred to the passion displayed. Long said she is searching for a permanent solution that's fair to all, including the taxpayers who have to foot the bills. And Welch promised the county would address the annexation issue "very soon."

Tallahassee task force

The state Legislature created a task force to make recommendations on the effect of annexation on the budget of the Lealman Fire District and its 43,000 residents. The voting task force members are Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, Lealman Fire Commission Chairwoman Becky Harriman, Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler and St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Tish Elston. Nonvoting members are Kenneth City Mayor Muriel Whitman and Seminole Mayor Jimmy Johnson. Seminole is cutting its own deal with the Lealman Fire District. The task force, which has been meeting since July 9, must give its report to the Pinellas County legislative delegation on Nov. 1. Even though it appears a deal has been reached, final approval rests with votes of the Lealman Fire Commission, the Pinellas County Commission and the St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park councils.

Under the proposal, Pinellas Park would enter into a 15-year agreement to pay 2.1752 mills per property to Lealman for first response fire service to annexed properties. St. Petersburg would enter into a 13-year agreement to pay 1.74 mills to Lealman for continuing to provide first-response fire service to properties it annexed out of the district. Lealman's current fire tax rate for its property owners is 3.6927 mills.

The task force is scheduled to meet again at 5 p.m. Monday and 3 p.m. Wednesday. Both meetings will be in Room 202, Park Station, 5851 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. Both meetings are open to the public.

[Last modified October 20, 2007, 22:34:01]


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