Bay Buzz

The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

For Kenneth City, the fire deal was REALLY sweet

28

October

LEALMAN -- For years some activists in this unincorporated area complained that Kenneth City was getting its fire coverage on the backs of Lealman taxpayers courtesy of a sweetheart deal the fire board had cut with the town.

But just how sweet became clear Tuesday night.

Lealman fire commissioners held a special meeting to discuss that contract, which is worth a bit more than $200,000 a year right now -- the amount grows by 3 percent each year. Fire commissioners canceled the contract in September when they became outraged because Kenneth City had annexed 10 Lealman properties into the town. The annexations meant that Lealman would lose the tax money -- between $7,200 and $8,000 a year -- to the town while still having to provide fire service to those properties under the contract.

The math does not make sense at first glance: Why eliminate $200,000 a year in a snit over $7,200 to $8,000 a year? It's not that amount. It's possible future amounts that has fire board members in a tizzy. If Kenneth City annexed one or more properties with large taxable values, the loss could devastate Lealman's budget, resulting in layoffs and/or increased property taxes to Lealman residents.

"Our taxpayers are paying enough," Lealman fire board member Kathleen Litton said. "When they start yanking people out ... on the back end, we're losing taxes, so their deal gets even sweeter."

And that deal? Well, if Lealman had charged Kenneth City using the same tax rate it charges its taxpayers -- $4.4828 per thousand dollars of taxable, assessed property value -- the contract price would have been a whopping $698,191 a year. That's a huge difference -- $492,118 -- between what the town is paying and what it would have paid for fire service had it received equal treatment with Lealman's own property owners.

The question people need to answer, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said, is: "Should Kenneth City pay its fair share of the tax burden?"

The answer seems to be "no." The Lealman fire board has offered to reinstate the Kenneth City contract if the town agrees to stop annexing or if the town agrees to pay Lealman not only the $200,000-plus contract amount but also the taxes the fire district would have received from any annexed properties for four years after the annexation.

So far, Kenneth City's answer to the property tax payment has been "no way." And tonight, Kenneth City's council will hold a workshop to discuss, among other things, Lealman's position as well as a proposal from Pinellas Park.

Pinellas Park has offered to take over fire delivery for the town for a bit more than $200,000 a year, plus put a firetruck and three firefighters in the town's former fire station after it's refurbished. Pinellas Park would pay for the refurbishing, and Kenneth City would reimburse Pinellas Park over several years.

The deal has advantages for both sides. Kenneth City would get a firetruck in its town and not be nagged about annexations. And the truck would be closer to residents in the southern portion of Pinellas Park. Right now, Pinellas Park has no fire station south of 82nd Avenue N. Pinellas Park officials see no real added expenses because they'd merely be redeploying current employees rather than hiring new ones.

And Graham suggested how Pinellas Park might have come up with the cost of its contract. Pinellas Park has a total tax rate of $4.5478 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable value. According to Graham's figures, the portion of Pinellas Park's tax rate that goes to fire protection alone is about $2.25 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property value. Using that figure, if Pinellas Park charged Kenneth City at the same rate it charges its property owners, the Kenneth City contract would be about $348,000, not terribly much more than Pinellas Park's proposal.

That's actually the way Pinellas Park came up with its figures. City spokesman Tim Caddell said Pinellas Park decided to charge Kenneth City what its taxpayers are being charged for fire protection. Pinellas Park figured it at about $1.90 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property value.

Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer

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[Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:15pm]

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