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Pinellas Suncoast fire board concludes contentious lawsuit in hope for fresh start

By Kathryn Varn
Wednesday marked Fire Chief Mike Burton's first meeting in front of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District commissioners and residents. Burton, previously chief of Tamarac Fire Rescue near Fort Lauderdale, started Monday. [Courtesy of Mike Burton]

INDIAN SHORES — A battle over a lawsuit that racked up more than $100,000 in legal fees and soured the relationship between the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District and a group of residents came to an end last Wednesday when the fire board decided not to move forward with an appeal.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Lawrence Schear absent due to illness, concluded a lawsuit lodged by an Indian Rocks Beach commissioner and district resident claiming the wording of a referendum granting the district authority to collect a property tax was misleading. Last month, a circuit judge threw out the referendum when he sided with the residents, who were led by Edward Hoofnagle.

The district’s new chief, Mike Burton, in his first public comments, recommended commissioners vote no on the appeal and start fresh with the community to work out solutions to the district’s financial obstacles.

"I think the costs go beyond the fiscal cost of conservatively $40,000," he said of the appeal. "But the good will cost could be pretty high, and the public perception would not likely be favorable."

Former chief Sal D’Angelo, who aggressively pursued the referendum and other lawsuits that contributed to a high legal bill for the district over the past two years, resigned in August.

The outcome of the meeting, which drew resident applause, signaled a new era for the fire district and the community it serves, which includes Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore and the unincorporated Oakhurst area.

About 40 residents attended, many of whom had become meeting regulars in recent months. A dozen addressed commissioners, asking them not to move forward with the appeal, which board attorney Jeff Albinson estimated could cost $25,000 to $40,000.

The district spent about $253,900 on crafting, then defending the referendum, about $116,400 of that on legal fees for the lawsuit as of mid-September.

"That was $253,904 that could’ve gone for salaries, that could’ve gone for more equipment, that could’ve gone for improvements to the fire houses," said Indian Rocks Beach resident and commissioner Phil Wrobel. "Let’s take care of this and do it as grownups working together, not as gamblers using our money."

In a rare moment of pre-vote discussion from the dais, Chairman Joe Bruni emphasized the board was taking advice from lawyers throughout the referendum process and during the other lawsuits. He conceded the amount spent has been "astronomical."

Bruni took it a step further by suggesting the district form a task force made up of citizens, community leaders, the fire chief, the board attorney and himself to craft referendum language through workshops that will appease all parties — an idea some residents had floated at meetings past.

"I would like to start over with the citizens, the taxpayers and this board to move forward," he said.

But amidst the fresh-start theme, Bruni emphasized the lack of the $1.5 million the property tax would have provided will likely lead to service cutbacks.

Notably, this year’s budget still accounts for that revenue, meaning the district is operating on an unbalanced budget — a violation of Florida law. Finance director Dave Martin said he is working with Burton to edit the budget to account for the lost revenue, then will craft a budget amendment to reflect the changes.

"There will be no winners at this point from this," Bruni said. "The people that will suffer the most will be the firefighters … the taxpayers — it’s up in the air. If the fire district can’t sustain itself financially, we have to face tough decisions on whether we have to reduce the workforce or possibly close down a fire station."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.