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Town offers lower taxes as its lure

Kenneth City has joined the annexation shuffle, promoting its low tax base as incentive to unincorporated property owners.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


KENNETH CITY -- Town officials wanting to entice property owners into becoming a part of Kenneth City think they can make their case with two words: lower taxes.

"The main thing is the low tax base," Kenneth City Mayor Bill Smith said recently.

And with its lower taxes, Smith said, the town offers the same services as other Pinellas municipalities, including police and fire protection.

The mayor's remarks come at a time when annexation is a big issue across Pinellas County as municipalities scramble to bring in new businesses and homes to help generate more money without raising taxes.

The annexation quest has been especially contentious in business-rich mid-Pinellas, where Largo, Pinellas Park and Seminole actively seek to expand their borders.

More recently, Kenneth City decided to join the fray. Perhaps, predictably, Kenneth City officials are already butting heads with Pinellas Park.

At stake is about eight blocks of unincorporated land bounded by 62nd and 68th streets and 54th and 58th avenues. Officials from both municipalities are courting property owners in the area.

For Kenneth City council members, it's a matter of squaring off their borders.

For Pinellas Park officials, any annexations there are simply business as usual.

Whatever the viewpoint, the situation is already causing officials to trade barbs.

"If you go with Pinellas Park, you pay a lot more for your taxes," Smith said.

That's because Kenneth City is more careful with its spending, he said. Referring to recent reports that Pinellas Park had purchased laptop computers for its police officers, then left them sitting in the closet, Smith said, "They charge them (residents) for all their laptops."

The verbal jabs are just one way that both Pinellas Park and Kenneth City officials are working to promote the benefits of joining their municipalities.

In Pinellas Park, they are promoting service.

That service could be police protection or parks or reclaimed water, roads, streets, drainage and traffic control, said Bud Wortendyke Pinellas Park's annexation guru.

Smith said Kenneth City offers most of that at a lower cost. (Kenneth City does not have reclaimed water.) The millage rates bear him out.

Kenneth City's tax rate is about 9.6 percent lower than Pinellas Park. Property owners in the unincorporated Lealman area pay higher taxes to the county than they would in Kenneth City. The main reason is the cost of the Lealman Fire District.

If property owners annex into Kenneth City, fire protection is included with the town's taxes. The town contracts with the Lealman Fire Department for service. Thus, becoming part of Kenneth City would mean area residents would get the same fire service for less taxes.

That's true right now, but may change in the future, Lealman fire Chief Gary Wolff said.

To begin with, the cost of the Kenneth City contract increases by about 4 percent each year. That might eventually mean Kenneth City will have to increase taxes to maintain the contract.

But, more important, Wolff said, are upcoming changes in the Lealman district itself.

The Lealman Fire Board recently received permission to become an independent taxing district. That means the costs for fire service may change.

"It may bring the costs down for some of these people," Wolff said.

Part of that change is development. New homes are beginning to go up to replace shabby areas and community members residents are trying to clean up the area up. All that results in higher property values.

That can bring a government more money even without increasing the tax rate because the value of taxable property itself has risen. Higher property values can sometimes even result in lower tax rates. If the government's spending doesn't rise, property tax rates can drop because there is more taxable value across a city on which to draw.

With all that in mind, Wolff has one piece of advice for people who are thinking of annexing.

"They need to look at the whole overall picture," he said. "Not just right now."

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