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Legislature lowers Lealman fire tax cap and makes annexation less appetizing

LEALMAN — Residents of this unincorporated area will have more protection from high property taxes for fire service and from annexations under a bill passed by the state Legislature.

The bill must be signed by Gov. Rick Scott to become law.

The new law requires any city that annexes property from the Lealman Fire District to continue to pay the fire taxes imposed by the district unless the annexing municipality assumes first response fire service to the annexed area.

The law also provides for a 42.5 percent drop in the cap on the property tax rate that the Lealman Fire District can impose. Currently, the cap is $10 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property value. The new cap is $5.75 per thousand.

That's only a bit more than the area's current rate of about $4.48 per thousand.

The law will sunset in 2016.

"Lowering taxes for the residents of District 51 has always been my top priority, and I'm pleased to be able to deliver on that promise," said state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said he was thankful the bill passed. The law, he said, will preserve the integrity of the Lealman community.

Annexation has long been a hot issue in the unincorporated Lealman Fire District, located roughly between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg on the north and south. It is roughly bounded by Interstate 275 on the east and Park Street on the west. Kenneth City sits in the middle of the district.

Lealman residents complained that annexations were tearing apart their community and harming their pocketbooks. That's because, when property was annexed, the annexing city imposed its own taxes, which included fire taxes. But the Lealman Fire Department continued to provide first response fire service without receiving the tax. Maintaining the staffing to service the area from a dwindling tax base meant those who were not annexed paid higher fire taxes to make up the difference. Residents said that was unfair.

The area was especially stung when Seminole annexed the tax-rich area on the west side of Park Street that includes the Target and what is now a shopping center anchored by Kohls.

Lawsuits were filed and state statutes were passed and others were submitted but failed to pass. The sunset date on this newest bill coincides with the end point of an agreement between the fire district and Pinellas Park. Pinellas Park has agreed not to annex into Lealman until 2016, but it's unclear if the city will resume annexations at that time.

Lealman is not the only unincorporated area to seek protection from the Legislature because of annexations.

Legislators passed a so-called all or nothing bill in 2009 to protect Tierra Verde after residents were angered when St. Petersburg annexed 18 acres. The gist of the law is that an annexing city must take all of the island or none and the annexation must have the approval of the island's voters.

The Legislature passed a similar "all or nothing" bill this year to protect the East Lake Woodlands area in northern Pinellas.

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

Legislature lowers Lealman fire tax cap and makes annexation less appetizing 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 3:31am]

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