Officials: Growth is carefully paced
By MAUREEN BYRNE
© St. Petersburg Times,
SEMINOLE -- The money pot keeps growing in the city.
With Seminole annexing more and more unincorporated areas, its tax base keeps getting larger and larger.
"It's unique," Mayor Dottie Reeder said of Seminole's situation. "I know cities where people are asking to join and they're turning them down because it would be a hardship on their budgets."
But that's not the case in Seminole, Reeder said. Because the city already provides fire, recreation and library services to its newly annexed residents, there is no need to increase those departments, she said.
And the additional revenue from annexation has allowed the city to lower its property tax rate for the fourth consecutive year, City Manager Frank Edmunds said.
"That has been our approach," he said. "We budget for what we need to maintain our operations and services, set aside money for capital projects and when possible send some of that money back to our citizens."
Last week, Edmunds proposed an 8.4 percent drop in the city's tax rate next year, saving the average homeowner about $10.
The owner of an average Seminole home valued at $72,200 will pay about $212 in city taxes. If the home qualifies for a homestead exemption, that amount drops to about $139.
Don Cocker, who has lived in an unincorporated area west of Starkey Road since 1967, says he doesn't think the city's financial good times will last.
"They're making people think that this is a great deal when I don't think in the long run it will prove to be," said Cocker, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Seminole Fire Rescue board before the city took over the agency.
Cocker and others who oppose annexation claim the city doesn't tell the truth about taxes. The critics say they would pay higher taxes if they joined the city.
"They can't sustain this lower tax rate," said Cocker, who owns a photography business. "What they're looking for is people to pay for their growth."
"That's not true," counters Edmunds. "We do not need additional money for the services we are now providing. We are financially solvent."
Edmunds said the city does not aggressively pursue annexation. "We are out there because the residents have asked us to be," he said.
Residents in Robin Williams' neighborhood asked whether they could join the city. Seventy-one percent of the voters in the Woodbridge area, which is north and south of 102nd Avenue N west of 113th Street, approved a referendum last year that annexed them into Seminole.
"Service," Williams said. 'That's one reason I voted on annexation. You get better service from the city of Seminole."
Williams said he also pays less taxes by living in Seminole. And besides, he added, it only makes sense to square off the city's boundaries.
City leaders want to triple Seminole's size to 12.5 square miles to encompass as many as 60,000 residents. Today, the city's approximately 16,000 residents live within a 4-square-mile area.
If the city does grow significantly, it will need to increase its police protection, code enforcement, administration and public works. Edmunds says it's more cost effective to contract some of the work, much like the city already does with the Sheriff's Office and some of its public work projects.
"That has been the formula that has allowed us to grow and not experience additional costs," he said.
Cocker says it's only a matter of time until Seminole experiences growing pains. "With all the other things that are going to start hitting the fan in the next few years, they're not going to be prepared to handle it," he said.
Reeder disagrees. "We have elected officials who look at funding in a responsible manner," she said. "Every year we have a retreat in which we set our priorities. And we don't stray from them."
Two of this year's priorities -- traffic and green space -- already are being addressed. The city is paying the Sheriff's Office for a full-time deputy who will deal specifically with traffic issues. The city also is seeking a state grant to buy 36 acres of land near Long Bayou that would remain undeveloped.
Yet will annexation eventually put a strain on the city and its services? "It may," Edmunds said. "And when it does, we stop. There is no sense in my mind to annex if it's going to cost our taxpayers money."
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