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Declaration toward independence

In Lealman, a crowd of 90 is mostly enthusiastic about moving toward cityhood, so much so that they plunk down bills toward a ''city kitty.''

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


LEALMAN -- With cheers ringing in their ears, most of the estimated 90 people who crowded into a community meeting Wednesday raised their hands in agreement: Lealman residents need to take the next step toward becoming a city.

The idea of incorporation has gained favor as the solution to protect the area against annexations by the adjoining cities of Pinellas Park, Seminole, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City.

"Let's get the $25,000 to do a study," resident Charlie Bell said. "Let's get the ball rolling. I'm willing to put 20 bucks on the table right now."

Bell took the money from his wallet and placed it on the table in front of the leaders of the Lealman Community Association.

He turned back to the audience and said of association president Ray Neri, who had spent much of the evening speaking, "I'll pay 20 bucks any time to make him shut up."

Others walked to the front of the room to plunk down 1's, 10's and 20's.

Neri asked for a show of hands from those "who think we're still on the right track." Up went most of the arms. When Neri asked if anyone thought the association was making a mistake to raise money for a study, there was only one hand.

Neri told the man that he was brave to show his opposition and asked that he join the organization and attend future meetings to keep his viewpoint alive.

Lifelong Lealman resident Ron Lowe then stepped forward and said he was proud of the people in the room. He recounted a time he had appeared before the County Commission to ask its members to do something for Lealman. Lowe said it was like begging.

"I don't want to have to beg for anything anymore," Lowe said. "Let's push this thing through and do it right."

Audience members donated $350 on the spot for the "city kitty," including $20 each from state Rep. Frank Farkas and state Sen. Jim Sebesta, both Republicans from St. Petersburg.

Farkas and Sebesta had come to listen. They will have to sponsor the state law allowing the unincorporated Lealman area to become a city, if the movement gets that far. Farkas has informed the County Commission of Lealman's intent.

But first, Lealman must conduct a feasibility study to see what the new city's boundaries might be. The study also would determine the expected tax base and the likely taxes residents and businesses would have to pay.

"The key is going to be the feasibility study, obviously," Sebesta said Wednesday.

Sebesta called Wednesday's meeting a "wonderful exercise in democracy." He said he was especially impressed at the turnout because he'd never seen so many people come to that type of gathering.

Given that, and the support most present had for the prospect of the study, Sebesta said he thought it was bad that it would cost the people about $25,000 just to "ask the question" whether they should become a city. Sebesta said he wanted to try to help Lealman residents find the money or other help in having the study done.

"There may be other ways to skin the cat," Sebesta said.

Warding off nibblers

The Community Association has set up several committees to organize the drive toward cityhood. One of those will work to convince property owners not to annex into nearby cities. Another will work at raising money for the feasibility study. Yet another will work at getting folks registered to vote and then out to the polls to increase the area's political clout.

During the past year or so, Lealman has become increasingly hotter for civic activism as residents have united to clean up and revitalize the area. They've also become more politically aware of the fact that adjacent cities, especially Seminole, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, were annexing millions of dollars worth of Lealman property.

Most of that property has been commercial, which removes it from the area's tax base. The need for services remains and, after the annexations, residents and businesses are left bearing a higher tax burden to make up for the loss.

The Lealman Community Association has taken the lead in trying to stop the annexations -- soliciting state and local help and asking nearby Kenneth City if it would merge with the Lealman area. Those options fell through, leaving incorporation as the only way to protect Lealman's borders.

The feasibility study will take about two years. Until then, most questions cannot be answered, such as the new city's likely boundaries and whether it would include only the Lealman area east of Kenneth City or also west Lealman.

Several west Lealman residents who attended Wednesday's meeting want to make sure they're not left out.

"This is really exciting. West Lealman should be included," Pat Erdmann said. "We're on the ground floor of creating a new city."

Applause broke out as Erdmann continued.

"I don't want to be Kenneth City. I don't want to be Pinellas Park," Erdmann said. "Long live Lealman!"

Erdmann waved her fist in the air and "yeas" could be heard among the applause.

A naysayer

There were doubters, too.

Bob Payne was worried about the effect of incorporation on taxes and on freedom.

"I don't want to be in a city anyplace," Payne said. "There's no way taxes can possibly go down. ... We've been county for a long time. It's been a good county. ... I want my freedom the way I've been having it."

Payne wondered where a Lealman city would get the money to pay for things such as a City Hall or services.

Someone from the audience called out: "You think we're not paying for it now?"

Payne urged the audience and association board members to drop the incorporation idea. He vowed to get people to sign petitions against it.

Another audience member called out: "We're not making decisions here. All we're talking about is a feasibility study."

Then Payne and John Frank, a member of the Community Association board, debated annexation and revenue sources for cities.

Frank told Payne that cities can get revenue-sharing money and other funding that is not available to an unincorporated area. It's that sort of money that might help keep taxes down, Frank said.

As for fighting annexation another way, Frank said, that was unrealistic. The cities, he said, take the businesses, which pay the most tax dollars. Once all the commercial property is gone and only the residences are left, what's left "is going to become the biggest slum in Pinellas County."

It's necessary to work against that, Frank said.

Someone in the audience said to the woman standing next to him: "This stuff is educational. I had no idea this was going on."

Another cry: "We have to be somebody. We're nobody now."

Neri, president of the association, reminded everyone that the results of the study may stop the incorporation movement in its tracks if taxes appear to be unreasonable. "I'm not stupid," Neri said. "I don't expect anyone in here to be stupid."

But if the study is reassuring then, yes, Neri said, it's worth going the whole way. In the end, he said, Lealman voters will make the final decision.

If you're interested

A representative from the Florida League of Cities will talk about the steps to become a city at the next Lealman Community Association meeting, at 7 p.m. Oct. 3. The location has not been scheduled. Association members have decided to move their monthly meetings because the fire station they've been using cannot hold the number of people who show up. For information, call association president Ray Neri, 527-5352.

To become a city

Here are the basics:

1. The state representative for the area sponsors a bill in the Legislature.

2. A feasibility study establishes boundaries and calculates the tax base. A committee writes a city charter.

3. Public hearings allow residents to voice their opinions and suggest a type of government.

4. The feasibility study is sent to the Legislature and makes the rounds of state agencies for analysis. With a House committee's endorsement, a bill goes before the House and then the Senate for passage.

5. The bill goes to the governor for approval.

6. If local voters approve incorporation in a referendum, a transition team runs the new city until a government can be elected.

-- Source: Florida League of Cities

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