Lealman acts to fight off nibblers
Activists in the unincorporated area suggest a radical survival mechanism: Merge with tiny Kenneth City.
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Nancy Alvez swings daughter Chynna, 1, at the playground next to the Kenneth City Library. A merger would give Kenneth City more green space and a stable tax base. Were both going down the tubes if we dont do anything, says Lealman Community Association president Ray Neri.
It's easy to get a rise out of Lealman residents. Just mention annexation.
The word raises the specter of rapacious cities -- Pinellas Park, Seminole and St. Petersburg -- gobbling piranha-like at the edges of this unincorporated area. The threat of being consumed piecemeal strikes at the Lealman psyche, with its fierce dislike of government intrusion on an independent way of life.
"We are being nibbled to death by ducks," Lealman Community Association president Ray Neri said. "They're going down the corridors and taking the commercial properties."
The prospect of losing community identity and self-determination has some Lealman residents suggesting a radical solution: Merge as a whole rather than wait to be picked off a bite at a time. And merge with a community that's not so big that Lealman would lose its identity in the larger mix.
On Wednesday, Neri and others from the Community Association appeared before the Kenneth City Council to suggest that the town annex the Lealman Fire District.
The benefits to both sides are obvious, Neri said.
Such a merger would create a city about the size of neighboring Pinellas Park. The enlarged Kenneth City would be eligible for more money from state and federal sources. Lealman has green space that Kenneth City lacks. The town would have access to Lealman's larger and improving tax base.
If Kenneth City does not grow, Neri said, there will be no choice but to raise taxes to support the necessary services and "you will tax yourselves out of business." A merger, he said, will stabilize taxes well into the future.
"We don't want a situation where we start to tax our elderly residents out of their homes; nor do you," Neri said.
"This is a win-win thing for both Kenneth City and us. I don't see how this doesn't make sense for everybody. ... This is going to be an exciting adventure. We can change the face of Pinellas County."
"I think it's an exciting idea," Kenneth City council member Teresa Zemaitis said. "I think it could fly. I'd like to hear more from some of the professionals involved. ... The concept is a strong one."
Council member Al Carrier was similarly enthusiastic, saying, "I'd like to see it happen. ... It's a fact of life, if this town doesn't grow, it's going to die."
County officials are working on estimating the costs of such a merger. Kenneth City and Lealman representatives are scheduling a workshop where they can begin exploring the possibility in depth.
Neri and other Lealman activists also are scheduling talks with groups in that unincorporated community to float the idea among residents.
"I don't even know what resistance we're going to meet in our own confines," Neri said. "I don't think this is a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination."
Overture sets off alarms
The idea of merging Kenneth City and Lealman has been suggested in the past, but it never went anywhere. That changed recently as Seminole annexed a chunk of Lealman's western border and took away tax dollars that supported the area's fire service. At the same time, Pinellas Park nibbles at the area's northern border, taking one property at a time. Just last month, St. Petersburg began feeling out county officials about a possible annexation of the Joe's Creek Industrial Park area east of 34th Street N and south of 54th Avenue.
"That, of course, set off alarms," Neri said. If taxes from that area were taken away, it would spell the end of the fire district because an unbearable tax burden would be left on the remaining residents, he said.
Such a threat to the area's eastern border comes at a time when Lealman residents were beginning to organize and make themselves heard at the county level in an effort to improve their neighborhoods.
A county-financed revitalization program is expected to improve neighborhood appearances and develop recreation areas, among other things. But then Lealman will be an even juicier plum for plucking, Neri said. "That's kind of like dressing the table for a whole bunch of hungry people and we're not the eaters. We're the meal."
Neri and other community leaders have met with state and local officials, searching for ways to stop annexation, even temporarily. That effort has failed. Time and again, they've been told the ultimate protection against being annexed into a city is to belong to a city.
Therein lies the Lealman irony: The people don't want a local government, yet to retain their identity as a community, their only defense may be to accept one.
Why Kenneth City?
For a merger, community leaders' eyes have not turned to Pinellas Park, Seminole or St. Petersburg.
Pinellas Park, Neri said, is seen as so annexation-happy that it's willing to do almost anything to get people to join the city. Neri referred to tax and fee breaks that Pinellas Park dangles as bait, especially to businesses.
Instead, Neri and other Lealman activists have turned to tiny Kenneth City.
"We're both going down the tubes if we don't do anything," Neri said.
Kenneth City already contracts with Lealman for fire service, a cost that could increase as tax-rich businesses are annexed into other cities. That gives Kenneth City a vested interest in merging with Lealman to protect itself, Neri said.
"Seminole and Pinellas Park are eroding our tax base, which will raise our taxes and therefore raise the price (of fire service) to Kenneth City," Neri said at a meeting last month of officials and residents who were interested in talking about a merger.
Such a union would have a big impact on Kenneth City. The town has about 4,500 people. But if the entire Lealman Fire District voted for a merger, a city of about 40,000 would be created -- about the size of neighboring Pinellas Park.
The newcomers would outnumber existing Kenneth City residents 8-1 -- which might threaten the town's identity.
"That's the part I don't have any idea about," said Bill Smith, the Kenneth City mayor. "I just really don't know what the people might think about it."
"If we don't do this, we will vanish. There's no question about it," Neri said. "This may happen. This may not happen. All we know is if we sit still with our heads in the dirt, we're going to get our butts kicked."
- Has 4,400 residents 18 and older, 62 fewer than in the 1990 census. It's the only area in upper south Pinellas County to show a population decline.
- Begun in 1956 by real estate developer Sidney Colen, who named it after his son, Kenneth. The town was incorporated in 1957.
- Area is about 1 square mile.
Lealman Fire District
- Has about 35,995 residents 18 and older.
- Area is about 11 square miles.
- Has two fire stations and the busiest firefighters in the county. Last year, the two stations answered 8,805 calls, more than 12 calls a day per station.
- Is one of the earliest communities to appear on a Pinellas County map.
- The name Lealman is believed to have originated between 1879-1885 when Elias B. Lealman bought 95 acres along what is now 54th Avenue N. Lealman became prominent as the main stop of the Orange Belt Railroad in the late 1800s.
- Local folklore and at least one historian say Lealman actually was issued a city charter sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But it's unclear if anyone ever acted on that charter and today it's considered to be part of unincorporated Pinellas County.
Communities of West Pinellas