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Pinellas Legislative Delegation okays bill to protect Lealman from annexation

LEALMAN — Pinellas County legislators will make a second attempt at passing a law that would protect this unincorporated area from annexation.

The county's legislative delegation unanimously approved a so-called all-or-nothing bill last week. The proposal would require any city that wants to annex part of the Lealman area to take all of it at one time. A majority of Lealman voters would have to approve the annexation before it could take place.

The bill must pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor before becoming law.

The goal is to protect the Lealman Fire District's tax base, which was eroded in the late 1990s and the first couple of years of this century when Seminole, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City annexed parts of the area. Recently, the only municipality to annex parts of the area has been Kenneth City. The fire district has sued the town and is asking a judge to overturn those annexations.

The bill is similar to one proposed last year that was approved in the state Senate but never made it out of a House committee. If passed this year, the law would sunset in 2016 and lower the cap on the tax rate in the Lealman Fire District.

Under current law, the Lealman Fire District tax rate is capped at $10 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would be $1,000 in fire taxes for a house assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption.

The proposal would lower the cap to $5.75 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $575 for a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption. The current tax rate for fire coverage in Lealman is about $4.48 per $1,000 of assessed value. Taxes on a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption are about $448.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, had originally said he would lower the cap to $5 per $1,000 of property value, but he increased it to $5.50 when he drafted the proposal. The delegation agreed to increase that to $5.75 last week to make sure the fire district would have enough money to survive.

Latvala said Jim Millican, the fire district's spokesman, had pleaded with him not to lower the cap so much. Millican, he said, "had tears in his eyes (and) 3 pounds of documents we went through."

The change in the tax rate prompted some harsh words from Latvala when Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said his city had not agreed to that amount. Caddell said he was not sure whether the change would be okay with his elected officials and wanted to retain Pinellas Park's right to protest.

Latvala snarled at Caddell, saying that if Pinellas Park was trying to lay groundwork for killing the bill, he would take them out to "the woodshed."

Caddell said Monday that Pinellas Park has no objections to the change in tax rate.

Delegation members were equally unsympathetic to protests from Kenneth City. Troy Campbell, a first-time candidate for the Town Council, read a statement prepared by Mayor Teresa Zemaitis.

"I need to express my town's vehement opposition to any legislation which would inhibit Kenneth City's right to annex into the Lealman Special Fire District," Campbell said.

"I know that the Lealman Special Fire District is claiming that if annexations continue they will be losing revenue while continuing to provide service," Campbell said. "That is just not the case. Kenneth City assumes responsibility for providing fire services to any and all properties annexed."

Campbell added: "Any legislation prohibiting us from annexing into Lealman is a death sentence for Kenneth City. … It prevents us from growing. It prevents us from increasing our revenues."

State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said that's not so. There are enclaves the town could still annex if the bill becomes law.

"It's not a complete shutout for the city," Ahern said.

Zemaitis said Kenneth City police Sgt. Tom Goldberg was supposed to represent the town but was unable to because he was ill. Campbell, she said, was already going to the meeting, so she asked him to make the presentation. Zemaitis is a teacher and could not attend the morning meeting.

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

Pinellas Legislative Delegation okays bill to protect Lealman from annexation 01/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 3:34pm]

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