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Lealman fire board facing sad facts

Officials fear that losing even more residents, and revenues, to future annexation will eliminate the fire district.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


LEALMAN -- From the prospect of higher taxes to the possible death of the Lealman Fire District, the news from Monday's fire board workshop did little to cheer gloomy firefighters and upset residents.

It was the first time the board had met since losing part of its fire district to Seminole in an annexation vote last week. Most of the news was bad.

Consider:

Lealman fire taxes could increase as much as 12 percent next year, if nothing changes.

Budget cuts made to avoid that high a tax increase could result in lower pensions for firefighters and the loss of an administrative training position. That means problems in the training system will not be fixed anytime soon.

The stressed budget means Lealman will break a promise to put a new satellite fire station on Park Street.

Seminole and other cities want to annex more land, which Lealman officials fear will eventually cost the fire district so much money that it would have to stop operating.

There was a bright spot for people still stinging from last week's landslide vote by some Lealman residents to annex into Seminole, depriving the fire district of much-needed tax money.

That was a phone call from county officials informing Lealman board members that they are now eligible for money from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The money -- about $1-million -- would be used to replace Fire Station 18, 4017 56th Ave. N. The new station would be at the Lealman Park on 54th Avenue N at 37th Street and would house a community center.

Even that news failed to cheer board members, who were suspicious of the county's motives. They feared the sudden offer of money was a way to shut up their continuing protests over the annexation and halt their campaign urging businesses along Park Street to "de-annex" from Seminole.

"They don't want us raising a stink," said Michael Brophy, the board's first vice president.

Brophy, like other board members, was willing to take the money if no strings were attached.

While that is good news for residents of east Lealman, those who live in west Lealman will not be so lucky. On Tuesday, after going over his proposed budget for 2000-01, Lealman fire Chief Gary Wolff decided to pull the plug on a proposal to put a satellite fire station on Park Street.

Board members had said Monday that they wanted to deliver on their promise to residents and businesses in that area, but Wolff said opening the station would cost an estimated $15,000 a year, too much for a district that's already facing a shortfall.

"We can't afford it," Wolff said. "I can't justify raising the taxes. . . . There's no sense pursuing this."

The station's future was jeopardized after voters in the area south and east of the Cross Bayou canal, west of Park Street and north of Tyrone Boulevard voted to annex into Seminole. That area is in the Lealman fire district and paid taxes to Lealman.

Now, those residents will pay those taxes to Seminole, even though Lealman still will provide fire service to the area. Seminole is not obligated to pay Lealman for those fire services. Residents left in Lealman will be paying to supply fire service to Seminole citizens. That will cost Lealman about $146,000 a year in taxes.

Lealman faces other economic problems -- the budget already needed to go up for next year.

Just before the annexation vote, Wolff had submitted a $4.1-million budget to the county for the coming year, about $283,000 more than this year's $3.9-million budget.

That increase, plus the loss in tax revenue, means that unless some changes are made, Lealman residents will have to come up with $429,000 more this coming year to keep the fire district running. To do that, the tax rate would have to increase from 4.9 mills to about 5.5 mills. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of property value.

For a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the fire taxes would increase from this year's $245 to $275 next year. The $30 represents a 12 percent hike in fire taxes alone.

That prospect upsets Lealman taxpayers.

"I don't want to have to pay taxes for calls into Seminole," said Maureen DiCosola, who owns a mobile home park. "No way do I want to pay for that."

Wolff has been studying his proposed budget, looking for places to cut so taxpayers will not be hit so hard.

"If we don't, 5.5 mills is going to raise some eyebrows in the community," he said.

Wolff has already found two possible cuts.

One is to eliminate the position of a training chief, the person who makes sure firefighters stay up to date on techniques. The position is unfilled. Deputy chief Richard Graham, the department's second in command, has been handling those duties. He will continue to do so.

But that stresses employees who already have enough to do, Wolff said. That means training is suffering.

"We're not being able to do the training like we want to," the chief said.

The other possible cut is firefighters' benefits. Wolff had budgeted about 20 percent of the personnel budget for pensions. He said that can be cut back to 10 percent.

"We are going to have a lean year," board president Linda Campbell said.

Wolff has some other budget adjustments to make. In this case, they're additions.

Board members decided to go ahead and open Station 21 on Park Street because they promised people there that they would have a new station.

All the bad financial news and the prospect of future annexations by Seminole, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg eating away at Lealman bite by bite caused some to wonder about the fire district's future.

Firefighter-paramedic Tom Conley even broached the idea of merger. The board considered that last year when trying to find a way to get firefighters state-level retirement and long-term disability benefits.

"We obviously got our faces slapped pretty hard by Seminole," Conley said. "Two years down the road, we may have to face the merger issue again."

Campbell, the board president, agreed that was a realistic way to look at things. The board has to try to make things work, but "we can't be stupid about it."

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