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Lealman Fire Commission sues Kenneth City over annexation

KENNETH CITY — The Lealman Fire Commission voted unanimously Monday to sue this town to try to overturn last week's annexation of 16 parcels of Lealman land.

The decision made good on a warning the board's attorney issued last week during a Kenneth City council meeting: Refrain from annexing the parcels or else.

The council ignored the warning and annexed the land, which totals about 9 1/2 acres. The acreage brings in about $5,594 annually in taxes to the fire district. Two of the parcels are owned by Kenneth City and have no taxable value.

Under state law, the lawsuit will not go straight to court, but to mediation. If Lealman ultimately wins, Kenneth City would have to pay the district's attorney fees and costs. If Lealman ultimately loses, the district would have to pay Kenneth City's costs and attorney fees. If mediation fails, the case could go to court.

Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said Tuesday she wanted to consult with the town attorney before deciding whether to comment on the lawsuit.

But Zemaitis said earlier she is not backing down from annexing land in Lealman as a way to increase Kenneth City's income and prevent large tax increases.

Annexation has long been a sore point with the Lealman Fire District, which has seen its tax base shrink over the years because of annexations by Seminole, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Kenneth City.

In recent years, however, annexations have tailed off as the district reached agreements with Seminole and Pinellas Park. Seminole agreed not to annex into Lealman. And Pinellas Park has agreed not to expand into the area for the foreseeable future.

St. Petersburg has been reluctant to take land from the area because of a state law that requires an annexing city to pay Lealman's fire taxes on that property for the first four years after the annexation. After that, the taxes would go to the city coffers.

Kenneth City also had an oral agreement not to annex Lealman property, but last year Zemaitis, who was not a party to that agreement, weighed the options and decided that the franchise fees and other money from properties would outweigh the four-year requirement to pay Lealman's fire taxes.

She led the council in annexing seven properties with a total taxable value of about $7,200 a year.

Those annexations prompted the Lealman district to cancel a contract to provide Kenneth City with fire service — a decision that cost Lealman about $210,000 a year for the five years left on the contract.

Kenneth City turned to Pinellas Park to provide fire service. Pinellas Park then moved one of its fire engines into Kenneth City. And now the county is considering moving a paramedic position from Lealman Station 19 to Kenneth City Station 16.

The county estimates the move would save about $451,000 annually in countywide taxes. Pinellas Park estimates it would receive about $300,000 a year more in countywide funding for the paramedic position. And Lealman, which would lose a rescue vehicle as well as funding for several paramedics, would lose about $860,000 each year in county funds.

That's in addition to the more than $200,000 it has forfeited from canceling the Kenneth City contract.

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

Lealman Fire Commission sues Kenneth City over annexation 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 2:47pm]
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