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    Manager challenges the county on taxes

    Largo's city manager wants the county to account for its spending. No problem, a county official says.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    LARGO -- City Manager Steven Stanton thinks the folks in county government have been taking advantage of Largo residents. Make that all homeowners who live in Pinellas cities.

    For years, Stanton has been telling anyone who will listen that county officials have been using part of the countywide tax paid by all property owners to subsidize services for residents who live in unincorporated Pinellas. The money for these services, such as sheriff's patrols, code enforcement and zoning, is supposed to come from a tax levied on unincorporated property owners.

    On Tuesday, Stanton got the unanimous approval of city commissioners to demand that the county show how it is using the countywide tax to pay for these services.

    Interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster, who denies Stanton's accusation, sees a little of Don Quixote in the city manager.

    "I have the greatest respect for Steve, but he enjoys tilting at windmills," Lancaster said Wednesday.

    Stanton fears that taking money away from the countywide tax will result in less money for capital improvement projects that will help all Pinellas residents. The city manager's dander was raised last week when he watched county commissioners discuss an expected $5-million shortfall from property tax revenue from unincorporated residents.

    Lancaster said the county has not used the countywide tax to pay for services for unincorporated residents.

    "It's not our habit to send bills for things we do not do," she said.

    Stanton wants proof.

    In the past 10 years, Stanton said three Largo city staffers have asked the county to give a detailed cost analysis of what and how it spends the tax paid by unincorporated residents, which is known as the Municipal Services Taxing Unit. All three times, Stanton said, the city's efforts were rebuffed by the county.

    "We have asked on numerous occasions," he said. "They have been extremely unresponsive."

    Lancaster disputed Stanton's claims.

    "Any information Steve needs, he's welcome to," she said. "I don't think we have failed to provide any information."

    Stanton is hoping the county will agree to show the city its books. If not, he pointed to a Florida statute that requires city and county government officials to meet to resolve major disputes.

    Largo recently toyed with the idea of spending $50,000 to audit the county, Stanton said. The city asked officials in other cities like Clearwater and St. Petersburg whether they wanted to jump on board. But Stanton said none of the other cities would participate.

    "They didn't want to throw dirt in the eye of the tiger," Stanton said, referring to the county.

    Stanton, who has battled county officials on several issues in recent years, admitted he has grown a little weary of the contentious talk. Stanton said his stances of some issues have made him one of the least-popular city managers in Pinellas County.

    Still, Stanton insisted, he must battle for the best interests of Largo residents. In the past, Stanton said, Largo has acquiesced too often to the wishes of other municipalities.

    "Largo isn't a good little loser any more," he said.

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