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Lealman heads toward fire tax

By ANDREW MEACHAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


LEALMAN -- With most of the ballots counted, voters approved by a 3-to-2 ratio a proposal allowing the fire commission Board of Commissioners to set tax rates in the Lealman Special Fire Control District.

They also appeared to be on their way to electing two commissioners to four-year terms: incumbent Linda Campbell in Seat 1, and contractor W.A. Adams in Seat 5.

The referendum gives Lealman the ability to set its own budget and pay for fire control out of a tax of up to 10 mills. A mill is $1 of taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. More important to advocates, it removes county oversight, along with funds Lealman currently pays to the county fire board.

The department fielded between 30 and 40 phone calls Tuesday from confused voters. Others stopped by the station.

"We've had a steady stream of people coming in all day," said Fire Chief Richard Graham. "Basically, it's people not understanding what the referendum is all about."

Graham said he told residents the commission had no plans to raise the current tax rate of 5.5 mills.

"It's a tax savings of $100,000, not an increase," said Graham, referring to the sum currently paid to the county -- an expense that disappears with Lealman becoming an independent taxing district. Commissioners have debated over the past year whether to merge Lealman's Fire Department with other municipalities in order to increase the benefits firefighters receive.

Campbell, 58, incurred criticism from union factions by casting a deciding vote as chairwoman for a merger with Pinellas Park over St. Petersburg.

"There have been some hard feelings," she said, adding that the merger package with St. Petersburg's Fire Department would have been too costly.

The identity of the Lealman area -- which extends over 11 square miles from Northeast High School on the east to the Intracoastal Waterway on the west, and from 40th Avenue N on the south to 62nd Avenue N on the north and includes portions of Kenneth City -- was also at stake in the referendum, Campbell said.

"We want to stay Lealman, and the firefighters do, too," she said. If an annexation trend continues, residents could end up with higher taxes, Campbell said.

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