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Effort to make Palm Harbor a city falters

State Rep. Peter Nehr sponsored a bill to let North Pinellas voters decide Palm Harbor’s future.

State Rep. Peter Nehr sponsored a bill to let North Pinellas voters decide Palm Harbor’s future.

PALM HARBOR — The bill to let North Pinellas residents decide whether to create the new city of Palm Harbor is dead, at least for this year, legislators say.

Florida's financial situation, housing market and property tax structure are too uncertain right now to hear bills on incorporating new cities.

That was the message state Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, gave Monday to Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs.

Nehr had sponsored House Bill 1359, which would have scheduled a November incorporation referendum for voters in Palm Harbor, East Lake, Crystal Beach and Ozona.

Now the council Attkisson chairs, the Government Efficiency and Accountability Council, will not consider the Palm Harbor bill. Nor will the Committee on Urban and Local Affairs, a subcommittee of the council.

"Unfortunately, in my opinion," Attkisson wrote, "this is not the right time to pass this type of legislation."

The Palm Harbor bill was the only incorporation bill before the Legislature this spring.

Leaders of the Palm Harbor Coalition, a volunteer group that prepared the incorporation bill and the required feasibility study, say they appreciate Nehr's sponsorship, but contend state government is unjustly usurping their right to vote, their right to form their own local government.

Some vow to fight on, though apparently not Nehr.

He had agreed to sponsor the bill only if residents' taxes would not go up for the same level of services, he wrote in a news release. But an initial staff analysis of the feasibility study showed that taxes would have to be increased, he wrote.

"In all fairness, the Palm Harbor Coalition did raise some points that may have changed the staff analysis and this may be looked at in the future," Nehr added.

Chuck Hungerford, the senior legislative analyst who prepared the analysis, said he couldn't say whether taxes would go up.

"Whether or not taxes, fees and assessments would increase over what they are now we could not fully assess," Hungerford said.

Like most feasibility studies he receives, Hungerford said, the amount of revenue the town would need and the funds it would need to expend appear to be underestimated. But the town would have an enviable tax base, he said, sufficient to support itself.

"The feasibility study was exceptional," he said. "It was probably one of the more comprehensive ones that have been submitted for the Legislature's consideration."

Hungerford said he could have listed four pages of positive aspects of the study, but was told to focus on outstanding issues. They included:

• Pinellas County government would lose tax revenue and municipalities might, too, possibly creating budget shortfalls.

• Pinellas County government and municipal governments already must reassess budget priorities and services because of changes in property tax laws.

• The proposed city of Palm Harbor (population 96,314) would have average expenditures less than 20 percent of 10 cities with about the same population.

The coalition says those cities, in many ways, are not comparable to Palm Harbor. Many are beach towns, like Miami Beach, and most provide services that Palm Harbor would contract out

Hungerford said the coalition could have had a chance to make that case if the bill had come before the committee.

Coal it on officials say they wonder what went on behind the scenes to sink the bill. Is Attkisson the fall guy? asked Jim Kleyman, coalition spokesman. "That's what we suspect."

"Rep. Attkisson was taking the responsibility to take that bill out of committee," Attkisson's legislative assistant, Travis Jacob, said Tuesday.

Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin, supported the bill.

"He thinks it should be put for a vote, which is what the local bill does," said Tracy Caddell, legislative assistant to Anderson.

Pinellas County officials say they didn't lobby against the bill.

"The Board of County Commissioners took no position on this bill," said Elithia Stanfield, assistant county administrator.

Scott Fisher, the coalition volunteer who wrote the feasibility study, is not giving up.

He plans to drive up to Tallahassee today. He will wear a sign that says "Hunger strike, House Bill 1359, Let us vote." And he said he will stop eating until the bill is put back into play.

"People died for the right to vote and it's an important issue," he said. "They are taking one opinion — that council chairman's — that we shouldn't have the right to vote."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

>>More information

To learn more

Visit the Web site

palmharborcoalition.org or call Jim Kleyman at (727) 798-6645.

Effort to make Palm Harbor a city falters 04/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 8:00pm]

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