PINELLAS PARK — A little-known agency could be on its last legs but the state legislator who would like to kill it faces some strong opposition from cities and lobbyists determined to keep the tax money rolling in.
The first salvo in the battle to eliminate the Pinellas Park Water Management District will likely be heard this morning as taxpayers and public officials face off in front of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation. The 9 a.m. meeting is set for the Campus Activities Center on the University of South Florida campus, 140 Seventh Ave. S in St. Petersburg.
At stake is about $6.5-million in property taxes paid each year to the district by residents in some parts of Pinellas Park, Kenneth City, St. Petersburg, unincorporated Lealman and other unincorporated areas of the county between Pinellas Park and Seminole. The money, which has been collected for more than 30 years, was designated to fix drainage issues in a portion of mid-Pinellas.
But during the past few years, property owners in unincorporated Pinellas, from the tony Bayou Club to the cash-strapped Lealman area, have objected to paying those taxes, saying they get no advantage from the district's activities. Their protests got little notice until state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, was elected in 2006.
Long, who said she has the taxpayers' interests at heart, persuaded other legislators to authorize a study of the district by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, an investigative arm of the state government. The office spent about a year studying the district and concluded that it had served its purpose and should be dissolved.
That conclusion thrilled taxpayers in Lealman and other areas, but prompted resistance from the water management district and Pinellas Park, who do not want it dissolved. Some of those officials say they want to keep tax money flowing to pay for maintaining the drainage system that the district has built. But at least one official, Pinellas Park council member Rick Butler, has said he sees that tax money being used for future projects not contemplated when the district was first formed.
"What's important about this thing is the possibilities that can happen," Butler said late last summer.
The "new scope" of work could include such things as fixing flooding problems in the Mainlands, a privately owned complex for seniors. Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler lives in the Mainlands, which is also one of the powerful political strongholds in Pinellas Park.
Butler said he did not see any problem with the possibility of spending tax money to fix flooding issues on private property even though using public funds to improve private property is generally against the law. If Mainlands residents have been paying into the system, he said, they should benefit from their investment.
That's the argument Lealman and Bayou Club residents have used to try to get out from under the tax burden of 2.5581 mills imposed by the district. Residents there say they receive no benefit for the money they've been contributing for decades. They also complain that the members of the board that runs the district are not popularly elected, but appointed by Pinellas Park and the county. Those members, they say, are not accountable to the taxpayers and fly mostly under the radar with little or no oversight.
Long has given them a sympathetic ear. Her bill proposes a referendum of voters who live within the district. If the voters approve, then the district would be eliminated as of Oct. 1, 2012. Responsibility for maintaining the system would be shouldered by Pinellas Park, Kenneth City, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.
Long has also proposed a second bill related to the water management district. She wants to remove the Wagon Wheel Flea Market from the district's boundaries. Long is basing her request on an engineering study paid for by Hardy and Janet Huntley, who own the flea market.
The study concludes that the district's improvements have helped flooding issues east of Belcher Road but have made flooding more likely for properties west of Belcher.
The report concludes that "there appears no direct benefit, afforded by the PPWMD Channel ... improvements, to the properties located between Belcher Road and the Cross Bayou Canal."