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Bill aims to impede cities that annex land

Seminole says the county's proposal to restrict referendums would take power away from residents.

By LISA GREENE, ANNE LINDBERG and MAUREEN BYRNE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


Pinellas County commissioners want more power to restrict cities from annexing unincorporated land. And some city officials, including Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds, are miffed.

The change would apply only to annexation referendums, a vehicle through which Seminole has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year and a half. The move is the latest county effort to have more of a voice in annexations. After seeing a surge in annexations over the past few years, commissioners say they need to do more to help residents who oppose annexations.

"I'm saddened that the County Commission is considering such an action under the pretense of preserving residents' rights, when, in fact, they're proposing to eliminate a citizen's rights to vote on which jurisdiction to live," Edmunds said.

Gaining such power would mean getting state lawmakers to exempt Pinellas from current state rules and getting county voters to approve that. Then the commission could write new rules, which could be far-reaching and make annexation by referendum more difficult for cities.

For example, under current law the approval of 50 percent of the voters plus one is necessary for a city to annex a large area at one time. But if the change were made, the county could require approval from 75 percent of the voters for the annexation to take effect.

Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said the plan was overdue.

"Where has this been all the time we've been grappling with this?" he asked.

By Tuesday afternoon, county lobbyist Elithia Stanfield was calling local lawmakers, looking for someone willing to sponsor such a bill.

Steven Stanton, Largo's city manager, said the county is backing away from last year's agreement with local cities on annexation procedures.

"To hear they want to change the rules of the game because they're not getting their policy way is distressing," Stanton said.

Dorothy Book, who has lived in an unincorporated area off Starkey Road for 28 years, says if the county would demand that municipalities abide by a state statute dealing with annexation, it wouldn't have to pass new rules.

"We've been going to the commissioners complaining that they're not making the cities follow the state statute," Mrs. Book said. "I don't think we need more laws. Just follow what we have, and we'll be happy."

The county's draft bill says that residents are being pressured to agree to annexations and aren't given enough information to make annexation decisions and that the cities too often reach outside previously set annexation planning areas.

If widespread annexations continue, county officials worry that the remaining residents in unincorporated areas could be forced to pay higher taxes to pay for such services as sheriff's deputies.

"There are things we have to provide and there are economies of scale," said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

But Stanton argues that city residents already subsidize unincorporated residents because they don't pay the true cost of using city libraries, recreation programs and other services.

Edmunds, Seminole's city manager, says the county has more in mind than helping residents who don't want to be annexed into a municipality. "I think it's self-serving," he said. "Obviously, they want to keep their tax base."

However, Seminole's tax base has been growing steadily since June 2000, when it nearly doubled in size and population after annexing chunks of unincorporated land. Critics say the city aggressively pursues new residents.

Edmunds disagrees, saying Seminole responds only when individuals show interest in joining the city.

If the county makes its own rules regarding annexation instead of following state guidelines, it will infringe on a person's rights, Edmunds said. "They are trying to mandate or limit the citizens' rights to determine which jurisdiction they would prefer to live in," he said.

But the county's plan is welcome in some places.

"I think the county should have more control," Lealman Fire Commission chairwoman Linda Campbell said. "I think it's a wonderful idea if they can pull it off."

Campbell spoke for many in the Lealman area, where residents complain their community identity is being whittled away by successive annexations from the adjoining cities of Pinellas Park, Seminole, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City.

Some in the Lealman Fire District are especially angry with Seminole, which used a referendum last year to annex a large chunk of commercial land along the west side of Park Street. That annexation has cut into the fire district's tax base, which is particularly stinging because the fire district continues to serve that area. Only now, the district is not paid for its efforts.

Also pleased with the idea was Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler. While that city aggressively annexes, it does not use referendums as a method.

"I like that," Mischler said of the county's idea.

Because a referendum is so sweeping, Mischler said, he thinks many property owners who do not want to be in a city end up in a municipality against their will. Giving the County Commission the right to pass rules that would help those unwilling people would be good, he said.

"I believe in freedom of choice," Mischler said.

In other action Tuesday, the commission:

Met in closed session to discuss ways to increase security for county buildings and facilities. Commissioners made no definite decisions but plan to meet again next week to review more detailed plans, Harris said.

Authorized engineering staffers to begin designing a plan to widen Park Street/Starkey Road from Tyrone Boulevard to Bryan Dairy Road. The design work will include working with a group of Starkey Road homeowners to improve access to their homes.

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