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Seminole, fire panel reach accord

The 15-year agreement would prevent annexation east of Park Street.

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



The annexation wars between this unincorporated area and the city of Seminole are officially over. At least for the next 15 years.

Both the Seminole City Council and the Lealman Fire Commission have voted to accept a 15-year agreement that would prevent the city's annexing into the Lealman fire district east of Park Street. In return, Lealman will not bid on contracts to provide first-response fire service in Seminole's fire district.

Lealman underbid Seminole in 2005 on a contract to provide fire service to the Bay Pines VA Medical Center. The center is in Seminole and that city had held the contract for 27 years. Since Lealman took over service there, Seminole has complained it has continued to make most of the first-run calls into the complex but does not get paid for those calls.

The complaint is a mirror image of Lealman's about Seminole. That city annexed the tax-rich area on the west side of Park Street in 2000. But Lealman makes most of the first runs to that property because it is the closest. Yet Lealman is not receiving tax money for service to the properties there, such as Target, Kohl's and Otter Key Condominiums.

The agreement between the two solves the dispute. Seminole will get its Bay Pines contract back, unless someone other than Lealman underbids the city, and Lealman will continue to provide first-run fire service into the city without getting paid. At first glance, it appears Lealman gave away everything and got nothing back, especially considering the city's long stance against annexing east of Park. But that's not true, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said.

"It's definitely a positive for the district," Graham said. "For someone to say we didn't get anything out of that agreement, I disagree with them."

Graham agreed that Seminole has long maintained it has no intent of annexing more of Lealman, but "councils change and politicians change."

The agreement, he said, gives Lealman some security that its western border will be annexation-free.

That's more than the district can say about its other three borders, where Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg stand poised to annex come July when a state law protecting Lealman lapses.

District officials spent four months meeting with representatives of those cities as part of a task force mandated by the Legislature in hopes that an agreement could be reached.

Lealman and Pinellas Park reached a conceptual agreement by which the city would pay Lealman a token amount for annexed properties that would still be served by the district. But the agreement was contingent on Lealman and St. Petersburg being able to resolve their differences. That never happened and Graham said things seem to be at a standstill.

The district, he said, is waiting to see if the county puts together a task force to try to establish annexation-free areas. The group would start meeting after the first of the year.

Seminole was a nonvoting member of the Legislature-appointed task force. Yet, that city and Lealman managed to come to an agreement.

They did this by having city and district staff members get together outside the task force meetings. The two parties reached an agreement fairly quickly.

"We talked to the (Seminole) city manager and he seemed very straightforward," Graham said.

Graham suggested the district was unable to reach a compromise with Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, at least in part, because of the attorneys representing the cities and the district.

Early in the process, the task force members ceded most of their duties to their attorneys, allowing them to meet and bang out details with the task force mediator in attendance. Each attorney then gave a report during the task force meetings, but little negotiating was done at the task force table.

"When you throw all the attorneys in, it gets difficult," Graham said. He agreed that it might have been better if the main negotiations had been done at the task force table and the attorneys had been used to draft any agreement.

[Last modified November 20, 2007, 20:26:43]

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