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Latvala promises Lealman an all-or-nothing annexation bill

LEALMAN — Jack Latvala is busy working to make good on a campaign promise — to protect this unincorporated area from annexation.

Latvala, 59, a Republican, handily defeated Democrat Nina Hayden last week in the race for state Senate District 16, which covers parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Before the election, he pledged to Lealman voters that the first initiative he would sponsor would be a so-called all-or-nothing bill.

The bill, patterned after one the Legislature passed in 2008 to protect Tierra Verde, would require a city that wants to annex anything in Lealman to take the entire area at one time. And Lealman voters would have the final say on the annexation.

"The people of Lealman convinced me they're being piecemealed to death," Latvala said. "I just think it's important for people to control their own destiny."

Latvala said he is working out details of the bill. One detail could be a lower cap on the tax rate in the Lealman area. The current cap on the fire tax is $10 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. (Taxpayers are charged about $4.48 per thousand dollars of assessed property value on their 2010-11 tax bills for the fire district.)

Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, which has helped spearhead the fight against annexation, said he was thrilled that Latvala wants to help.

"We have been fending off annexation with one Band-Aid after another. The people of Lealman feel they don't want to be encroached upon," Neri said. "We hope that Jack Latvala will be able to get this through for us."

Neri also liked the idea of lowering the cap on property taxes for the fire district.

It should be capped at $5 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value "because frankly this area can't afford more than that," Neri said. "Should it get higher than that, it would be to the benefit of the people of Lealman to seek (another choice). We can't be put out of our homes because we can't afford a fire tax."

Annexation has long been an emotional issue in Lealman, which is located generally between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. The area stretches from the interstate to Park Street and is divided in two by Kenneth City.

Although the area has long been touchy about annexation, the issue became a flashpoint around 2000 when Seminole annexed the tax rich property on the west side of Park Street that includes the Target shopping center. That's about the time that Lealman formed an independent fire district and the massive loss of property tax revenue to Seminole prompted protests from residents who were left to shoulder a larger burden to fund the district. During the next few years, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City also annexed into the area, further eroding the tax base.

Antiannexation activists and fire district officials pleaded with legislators for protection. The Legislature passed a law forcing an annexing city to pay the Lealman property taxes for four years after an annexation. The fire district also sued St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park over annexations.

The result is that few annexations have taken place in recent years — Seminole says it never wants to annex east of Park Street and Pinellas Park has a moratorium on annexations into Lealman for the next few years. St. Petersburg has also not annexed into the area.

But this year, Kenneth City annexed 16 parcels of land with a taxable value of about $7,200 a year. The Lealman Fire District has sued the town. That case is proceeding.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Latvala promises Lealman an all-or-nothing annexation bill 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 1:01pm]
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