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Firefighters air concerns, hope annexation is rejected

If Seminole gains a large part of Lealman, residents will have to pay higher taxes to keep their fire department. Firefighters and paramedics worry the city won't be able to afford to keep them.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


LEALMAN -- Many on the fringes of land that could become part of Seminole after Tuesday's referendum are watching the process with worried eyes and lowered morale.

"They keep coming in here and cutting, cutting, cutting, eventually we're not going to be here," said Lealman Fire Chief Gary Wolff of annexations that could reduce his tax base. "I can't keep losing revenue."

The worst case, Wolff said, is that ultimately the Lealman Fire District will simply cease to exist because residents there will no longer be able to afford the taxes. That prospect has Lealman firefighters and paramedics demoralized.

"It's getting shaky because they don't know where they're going to be," Wolff said Friday. "It's the uncertainties that scare everybody, me included."

Wolff and his firefighters have been fighting Seminole's annexation of land on the west side of Park Street north of Tyrone Boulevard any way they could.

They've held cookouts, giving away hot dogs, sodas and brochures talking about the costs of annexation. They're opening a satellite fire station on Park just south of 54th Avenue N to improve fire service in the area and to increase community awareness of the department.

Wolff has gone to meetings to try to convince property owners to remain in unincorporated Pinellas County rather than vote to annex into Seminole. In fact, he was escorted out of an annexation meeting in Seminole Lakes on Tuesday. Wolff's objection to the annexation is simple. The land along Park Street is in the Lealman Fire District. If those properties annex into Seminole, the fire taxes will go to that city. But Lealman will still be the fire department on call.

That means those left in Lealman will have to pay higher taxes to maintain the fire district. If enough property is gobbled up by annexation, that tax burden could become so high that the Lealman district would be priced out of existence.

Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis said that argument is a red herring, but he conceded that the tax money would not flow to Lealman if the land is annexed. But he's not sure that will matter in the long run because all fire units respond outside of their areas, because it's the closest unit that gets called.

"It all washes out," Marquis said.

As for the loss of funds, "That happens on every boundary. . . . That's unfortunately a function of annexation." It might be, Marquis said, that Seminole eventually will have to reposition its fire services to serve the area.

But Wolff might want to take heart. Even if the business area between Otter Key at Park Street and 54th Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard is annexed during Tuesday's vote, it may not actually go into Seminole.

"We have sent a formal letter to the city of Seminole indicating that we're concerned about that piece of it being a serpentine and not being contiguous," Marquis said. State law requires that all annexations must be contiguous to, or touching, a city's boundaries.

Seminole officials have agreed to negotiate over that area. Marquis said they have indicated they may be willing to shrink their annexation of that area.

Up to a point, that's welcome news to one other opponent of the proposed annexation. Chuck Fleer, a County Commission candidate, belongs to a group that wants to keep unincorporated Pinellas as is. The annexation of the area generally between Otter Key and Tyrone is being done incorrectly, Fleer said. The trouble, he added, is that Marquis is not going far enough.

"Our position is that the whole referendum is flawed," Fleer said.

The procedure calls for a preannexation plan or report, Fleer said. Initially, the city of Seminole failed to even write a report. That caused the referendum to be delayed until Tuesday.

Then, once the city issued a report, it was incomplete and had errors, Fleer said.

"We believe that that alone should stop the referendum until they comply with the requirements," he said.

It's too expensive for residents to sue, he said, so the county should do so. But the county likely will not.

"The county's position is that their hands are tied," Fleer said.

Marquis agreed that the county likely will not sue. The proper time to do so, the county administrator said, was when the situation started. It's now too late.

Now it's up to the voters.

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