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Annex prompts new fire proposal

Seminole considers providing fire protection to Lealman residents after it annexes property within the Lealman district.

By MONIQUE FIELDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


A year ago, Seminole had no interest in providing fire protection to the 20,000 residents in the Lealman Fire District.

But now the city is seriously considering managing one of the district's two stations.

What changed?

In June, Seminole annexed property within the western portion of the Lealman district, which is near Park Street and close to Fire Station 19. Now it just makes sense to assist the district, which serves Seminole residents.

With a 5.5 mills tax assessment beginning Oct. 1, residents in the Lealman district are suffering from some of the highest fire taxes in the county. Seminole's recent annexation didn't help. Instead, the city's latest move stole a significant portion of Lealman's tax base, forcing the district to seek other means to help stabilize or possibly lower those taxes, said Lealman Fire Chief Gary Wolff.

If not, the fire district could be forced to raise fire taxes even higher in the coming years.

"What's going to happen here is we're going to price ourselves out of business," Wolff said.

Lealman firefighters work for a private corporation instead of a municipality; and because of this, state and federal benefits are not given to them or their families if they are injured or killed on the job.

"My concern is for the people who work here," Wolff said.

Seminole is willing to step in as long as it doesn't cost its taxpayers.

"We're just looking to see whether or not we can do it cheaper than they are doing it," said interim Seminole Fire Chief Dan Graves. "If we can't do it for cheaper, there's no sense in us doing it."

Graves is drafting a proposal to contract with Pinellas County to provide fire and emergency services to Lealman district residents. Seminole also is analyzing staff costs, especially salary schedules, and the number of calls Station 19 services.

At the same time, Pinellas Park is crafting its ideas to help manage Station 18. Officials there will work with Seminole officials to make sure the two proposals are in line with each other, said Michael Gustafson, assistant city manager of Pinellas Park.

If the proposals jump all the appropriate hurdles, the matter could be close to resolution as early as the first week of November. If not, Wolff fears a new fire board, seated on Nov. 7, may not be as receptive to Seminole or Pinellas Park providing fire services.

But first, Seminole has to make sure that managing another station is the right thing to do.

Now the city has more firefighters on its payroll than any other type of employee. So adding the 18 firefighters from Lealman to a city staff that's already two-thirds firefighter could create too much of an imbalance, said Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds.

Also, Seminole is only 4 square miles but serves a fire district that covers 22 square miles. Adding a portion of Lealman's district, which includes Seminole residents, would expand the city's coverage area another 6 square miles.

"We're not doing this just to be nice guys," Seminole's Graves said. "We're doing this to protect our own citizens."

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