Lealman annexation persists
By ANNE LINDBERG
© St. Petersburg Times,
LEALMAN -- After a two-month break, Pinellas Park officials have resumed annexations in the Lealman area.
Pinellas Park officials say they want to give property owners there freedom of choice.
The decision has angered some Lealman activists, one of whom called the city's push "mean-spirited."
"They have plenty of places to go besides Lealman," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association. The decision to resume annexations in Lealman is "the peeling of the Band-Aid off the hairy arm. . . . This thing is just pure mean-spiritedness."
Neri and other Lealman activists have spent the past several months pleading with adjoining cities to stop annexing into the area long enough for them to evaluate whether Lealman could support itself as a city.
They've taken their pleas to the state legislative delegation, asking for a local bill temporarily banning annexations in the Lealman area. Any help from the delegation would not come until next year.
"It's hard to plan into the future when you're being eaten up," Neri said.
Pinellas Park's decision also disappointed Linda Campbell, the head of the Lealman Fire Commission.
The annexations take tax money out of the fire district, leaving a bigger tax burden for those left in the unincorporated area.
The effect is heightened when businesses, which bring in more tax revenue than houses, are taken.
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me. That doesn't surprise me at all," Campbell said of Pinellas Park's decision. Campbell declined to comment further, saying she wanted to learn more. She said the land grab likely would be a topic at the commission's Nov. 13 meeting.
Annexation became a hot topic for Lealman last year after Seminole annexed the western border of the fire district on the west side of Park Street. That move, approved by referendum, gobbled up some of the area's most lucrative businesses, including Target, Hops and Don Pablo's.
The Lealman fire department still has to maintain the staffing and equipment to cover that area, but receives no tax revenue for doing so.
In the meantime, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City also have nibbled away at the district's edges with repeated annexations.
As some Lealman activists decided the solution was to form a city, the fire commissioners asked their attorney to see if they could reclaim their taxes from the annexed areas for at least four years.
Pinellas Park stopped annexing into Lealman at that point, at least until its city attorney studied the issue.
On Tuesday, Pinellas Park Council members had their answer. According to attorney Tom Reynolds, Lealman has no claim on the tax money.
City officials also urged Council to allow them to go forward with annexations to give property owners in the Lealman area the "right to choose" whether to stay unincorporated or come into Pinellas Park.
Most Council members agreed to let Lealman annexations begin again, although Mayor Bill Mischler cautioned that staff members should not actively pursue annexations there. The city should annex into the fire district only if people ask to be annexed.
"Don't go knocking on the doors," Mischler said.
Bud Wortendyke, the city's annexation guru, assured the mayor: "We have not gone down there."
The people are calling Pinellas Park, he said.
Council member Rick Butler disagreed with Mischler's idea that people truly have a "right to choose."
There are property owners in Pinellas Park who want to "de-annex," Butler said. He wanted to know if the city should allow that.
Butler previously has objected to annexing into the Lealman area, saying Pinellas Park has plenty of other places to acquire land. A moratorium, he has said, would give the people of Lealman a chance to see what they want to do with their future.
Mischler and other Council members bristled, saying no, once annexed, people should stay annexed.
"Then I ain't got no freedom of choice," Butler said.
Butler lost the argument and, at Thursday's meeting, the council gave unanimous tentative approval to three annexations in Lealman, including two storage businesses.
Pinellas Park also is negotiating with eight other property owners there.
Every time a city annexes land, Lealman has to redesign itself, said Neri, the community activist.
"We've been beating this horse forever," Neri said. This is "just a little setback."
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