PALM HARBOR — An initiative aimed at giving North Pinellas residents a choice whether to form their own city is gathering steam.
A bill awaits action in the Legislature, and local volunteers are laying the groundwork for building a town.
State Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, filed House Bill 1359 this month.
If the Legislature passes the bill, voters could vote on creating the city of Palm Harbor as soon as November. Ozona, Crystal Beach and East Lake residents would vote on whether to become part of the city, too.
If voters in all four communities decided to join a new Palm Harbor, the city would encompass about half the unincorporated area of Pinellas County. With an estimated 96,314 residents, it would include a third of the population of unincorporated Pinellas.
The Greater Palm Harbor Coalition, an informal partnership of community groups, has collected more than 1,300 signatures in support of the bill. That's more than the 1,000 signatures state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey had requested before he would consider supporting the bill.
Fasano's chief legislative aide, Greg Giordano, said the senator will do what he can to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate. Historically, he said, local bills like HB 1359 usually come to the Senate in the last two weeks of the session, probably in late April.
The bill is currently under consideration in the Committee on Urban and Local Affairs, under the House Government Efficiency and Accountability Council.
"The house subcommittee is making sure we are covering all our bases," said Jim Kleyman, spokesman for the Greater Palm Harbor Coalition.
The House subcommittee has already suggested some minor changes to the town charter and feasibility study included in the bill. And Palm Harbor coalition volunteers have incorporated those changes.
One of the bigger changes included decreasing some estimated property tax revenue by 10 percent as a result of the recently passed Florida property tax Amendment 1.
Kleyman said the coalition is confident the town can operate without increasing taxes or adopting any new or hidden fees, as its feasibility study shows.
"The reason we can do this is that Palm Harbor is a donor community," he said. "We are paying more taxes than we get back."
The coalition sought volunteers with backgrounds pertinent to starting up a city and more than 40 residents responded. A group of volunteers with government, financial, business and marketing experience meets every Thursday to respond to feedback from the Legislature and to prepare for creating a town if that's what residents say they want.
Two volunteers have helped incorporate other Florida cities.
Volunteers are meeting with other cities, Kleyman said, trying to benefit from their experience and glean best practices for a new Palm Harbor.
Even if the bill doesn't make it through the Legislature this year, Kleyman said, the coalition will be ready for next year.
The coalition has formed three committees to prepare for educating the public, should the bill pass, and for incorporation:
• Charter committee, to refine the city charter.
• Law enforcement/budget committee, to work on how the town would provide law enforcement and on how it would budget for services.
• Transitional issues committee, to educate the public about incorporation, to handle logistics like where a city hall would go and to coordinate possible contracting of some services.
Volunteers have been reaching out to Pinellas County officials, said Scott Fisher, who wrote the feasibility study, to get some idea of whether the town could procure any services from the county and what that would cost.
"But they don't even want to talk to us at this point," Fisher said.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.