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Feud between Largo and county over fees may be ending

LARGO — The debate between the city and Pinellas County over the county's "pre-emption" ordinance may come to an end Tuesday. For now.

The City Commission last week approved an agreement between the two governments that settles how much the county will pay Largo in permitting fees for the new $81 million public safety complex the county will build in the city. On Tuesday, the County Commission is scheduled to approve the agreement.

County attorneys drew up the controversial pre-emption ordinance last fall after learning Largo would charge it $205,000 more in fees than the county would charge itself using its own permitting fees. The ordinance exempts facilities of "countywide significance" — like courthouses, county parks, and health and welfare facilities — from city regulations.

The ordinance drew a chorus of complaints from cities across Pinellas, led by Largo, which was the first city to formally lodge a complaint in September. However, the County Commission passed the ordinance in October.

That prompted Largo City Attorney Alan Zimmet to recommend formal conflict resolution, the state-mandated precursor to legal action between government agencies. Zimmet feels the ordinance oversteps the county's legal powers.

City commissioners urged an attempt at compromise first, though, and the attempt was successful pending County Commission approval Tuesday. Mayor Pat Gerard thanked Zimmet for avoiding a legal battle between the two governments.

"I know you wanted to go to mediation right away," Gerard said, "but I appreciate your working through it and coming to what looks like a pretty satisfactory agreement for all of us."

Under the agreement, Pinellas County will pay a combination of its own rates and city rates. The end result is the county will pay the city about $421,000 in fees for the public safety complex, or about $196,000 less than what Largo originally charged the county.

While the agreement resolves the disagreement over how much the county should pay for this facility, the underlying disagreement over the ordinance remains. The interlocal agreement includes language that says it should serve as the guide to resolve similar disagreements in the future.

While Largo may have sheathed its legal sword, St. Petersburg has moved forward with conflict resolution over the pre-emption ordinance. Staff from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County will meet next week, according to St. Petersburg Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn, and a meeting between their two governing bodies will follow.

Groundbreaking for the public safety complex has been delayed while the county and city wrangled over permitting costs. Work should begin by May or June, according to Paul Sacco, director of real estate management for Pinellas, and will take 26 months to complete.

In other City Commission action this week:

• Commissioners approved the first reading of a change to city code that will allow drive-through restaurants on a conditional basis in the downtown development area. The switch was prompted by McDonald's, which wants to rebuild its West Bay Drive location. That McDonald's was built before the city barred drive-throughs downtown.

• Commissioners approved a new plan for vacation and sick time compensation for the city's non-union employees, which constitute about one-quarter of the city's workforce. Under the new plan, employees will accrue vacation time quicker, but will not be able to convert as much unused paid time off into cash.

Commissioner Harriet Crozier had a few pointed questions for human resources director Susan Sinz about the changes, which will save the city about $31,000 in the first year.

"Why did you put this on the table for us to consider?" Crozier asked.

"To save money," said Sinz, which prompted a smile from Gerard.

"Good answer," Gerard said.

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Feud between Largo and county over fees may be ending 01/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 3:31am]
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