OLDSMAR — East Lake fire officials are fighting back against Oldsmar's drive to annex East Lake Woodlands, two East Lake shopping centers and other commercial property.
The East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District, an independent taxing authority, has hired a public relations firm to bring its concerns to the public at a cost of about $19,500. The fire district is also fighting the annexation in court.
East Lake Woodlands residents will vote by March 10 on whether to join the city of Oldsmar.
"We don't want to lose the East Lake Woodlands portion of our population," said W.F. Bill Cannon, East Lake Fire Commission chairman. "That would cost us a tremendous amount of money."
The total taxable value of the annexation is estimated to be about $714 million for 2008, according to Pam Dubov, Pinellas County property appraiser.
Oldsmar is proposing to pass the tax money back to East Lake so the district can continue to provide fire and emergency services beyond the four years annexation rules require. But an agreement has not been signed yet, Cannon said, so he's not banking on it.
The district filed suit in mid December saying Oldsmar is not following state rules and the city's Nov. 18 ordinance providing for the annexation election should be thrown out. It's probably too late to stop the vote, Oldsmar's city attorney says, though a judge could possibly overturn the vote later.
In mid January after reviewing the case, 6th Judicial Circuit Court Judge John A. Schaefer asked Oldsmar to respond to East Lake's allegations by mid February. But last week, Oldsmar repealed the Nov. 18 ordinance and substituted a new one with a bit more commercial property that also provides for a vote.
The CMSA Advertising and Public Relations of Palm Harbor, hired by the fire district, has prepared a press release, a brochure, Web site information and a postcard mailer that will go to East Lake Woodlands residents four times before March 10.
The information on the postcard assumes that the East Lake fire district gets no tax money from Oldsmar for East Lake Woodlands after the four years required in annexation rules.
That's where Oldsmar takes issue with the fire district.
The postcard warns of a tax increase, a fire station closing, a minimum of six firefighters losing their jobs and increasing response times.
Since Oldsmar officials have said all along that they intend to give East Lake the tax money to continue providing fire services, they see those points as unfair.
"It's one thing to educate the public," said Oldsmar Mayor Jim Ronecker. "But do it honestly, don't mislead."
Another point on the postcard that Oldsmar disputes is that recreation fees would increase. Families with children who participate in sports in Oldsmar would actually see their yearly recreation fee drop from the nonresident fee of $240 to the resident fee of $15.
East Lake officials argue that most people in East Lake Woodlands don't use Oldsmar recreational facilities because they are elderly or the cost is too high. So if a family wants to start using the recreational facilities, they would have to take $15 out of their pockets.
Cannon acknowledged last week that for active families already using Oldsmar recreation, the lower fee would go down.
"Then it would cost them considerably less," he said. "And for them, it would be a benefit."
State Rep. Peter Nehr, who represents East Lake Woodlands and East Lake, said Thursday that he is advising residents to read annexation information from all sides carefully.
"There are some very competing so-called facts being put out by the East Lake fire district, by the city of Oldsmar and there are some things that are different in the East Lake Woodlands newsletter," he said. "It's difficult."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.