LEALMAN — Activists in this unincorporated area have fought long and hard against annexation. Now they're wondering why some nearby cities don't seem to get the message.
St. Petersburg, for example, wants to have the exclusive rights to annex the entire Lealman fire district. And Kenneth City has sent out 156 invitations to adjoining owners of businesses and residential land asking if they'd like to take advantage of the town's low taxes by annexing into that municipality.
"All Lealman wants is to be left alone," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association. Neri and LCA members have spearheaded the anti-annexation activities in the area.
"What in the world do they have to stir this up for?" Neri asked. "What possible gain for them?"
Kenneth City Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis said she's looking out for her town's tax base. In a down economy with plummeting property values, cities have to do something to bring in more revenue if they want to provide services. Annexation is one way to do that. It broadens the tax base.
And the theme of lower taxes is resonating with property owners. The first letters were sent out two weeks ago and four homeowners have said they definitely want to be annexed into Kenneth City, and others have called for more information.
"We'll know better in a couple of weeks what kind of response (we'll end up with)," Zemaitis said.
Ironically, Kenneth City's theme of lower taxes is being helped along by the Lealman Fire District. The district has a contract to provide fire service to Kenneth City — at a lower cost than Lealman property owners pay through taxes to the fire district. So those who annex into Kenneth City get the same firefighters and the same service at a savings.
"It's true," Zemaitis said, acknowledging that the town's contract with the fire district helps sell the idea of annexation to nearby property owners.
But it's not Kenneth City's piecemeal annexation of a house or smaller business that worries Neri and other activists.
It's the bigger plans St. Petersburg might have that cause the most concern. A countywide committee is studying the annexation issue and cities have marked out areas on a map that they would like to have designated as exclusively theirs for future annexations. St. Petersburg's wish list encompasses virtually the entire Lealman fire district, which runs between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park and on either side of Kenneth City.
If St. Petersburg got that area, it could take its time in annexing the tax-rich businesses in the main corridors along Park, 66th, 49th and 34th streets N. That would take money out of the fire district, leaving residents to pay higher taxes to maintain the fire department. It would also take money away from the county, leaving less for the county to spend on improvements in Lealman, which is one of the poorest areas in the county.
St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said the proposal makes sense because the city already supplies water to much of the Lealman area.
"I don't think we have any specific game plan. This is a planning exercise," Elston said. "You try to think long range what's going to make sense."
Neri said he doesn't think much of that argument. And neither does Pinellas Park. That city has agreed not to annex into the Lealman area for at least eight years, but it has actively annexed properties there in the past.
"We're not giving up wanting it just so we can give it to St. Petersburg," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said. And, he said, if Lealman ever wanted to annex wholesale into a city, residents there "would be crazy not to want to merge with Pinellas Park. But at the same time, that doesn't mean we're going after them."
The countywide committee's work is going slowly, and members have not started addressing substantive issues like annexation zones.