Ray Neri: Lealman will 'evaporate'
LEALMAN - The "A" word -- or annexation -- has always been a touchy topic in this fiercely proud and independent unincorporated area, which has seen portions of itself nibbled away by St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Seminole as those cities annexed properties to broaden their tax bases.
But now annexation has prompted a spat of sorts between the Lealman Fire Commission and Kenneth City. Kenneth City's recent annexations of 10 properties prompted the fire board to cancel a contract under which Lealman provides fire service to the town.
While fire board members blame Kenneth City for their actions, they say they're not holding grudges.
"Kenneth City made a business decision in annexing," fire board member Kathleen Litton said Tuesday. "We made a business decision in terminating the agreement. ... They had a great deal with us."
Fellow board member Linda Campbell said: "She forced us to (cancel) the contract."
"She" being Kenneth City Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis.
What was particularly galling, Campbell said, was Zemaitis' strategy in encouraging people to annex into the town: touting the low cost of fire coverage by Lealman in comparison to what Lealman charges its taxpayers.
"That just blew me away," Campbell said.
And fire Chief Rick Graham added that the fire district's attorneys advised that the contract be canceled to preserve Lealman's ability to try to to claim the tax revenues to any annexed properties for up to four years after the annexation. Under the contract, Lealman cannot do that.
"We were forced to (terminate) according to our attorneys," Graham said. "They don't have to annex."
Community activist Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association, which has spearheaded the organized drive against annexation, praised the board's actions.
Zemaitis, he said, has "visions of a grander, bigger Kenneth City."
To do that, Kenneth City would have to annex properties out of Lealman. But Lealman residents have asked the county Legislative Delegation for an "all or nothing" bill to protect it. The bill would require an annexing city to take all of the Lealman area if it wanted to take even one piece. And Lealman voters would have the final say on whether it happened.
But Neri said Tuesday he really doesn't see that happening because "so many members of the delegation are owned by cities."
"The annexation issue has worn everyone out because there's just no winning," Neri said. "It's not that I'm a defeatist. (I'm a) realist. ... The annexation laws were made for counties to be fodder for the cities."
As for the future, Neri predicted more annexations: "Ultimately, Lealman's going to evaporate."
Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer