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Pinellas Park, Kenneth City approve fire contract

KENNETH CITY — Pinellas Park will take over fire service in this town at the end of the month.

The decision, approved by the Kenneth City and Pinellas Park councils, ends a 14-year partnership with the Lealman Fire District, which has provided fire service to Kenneth City since 1996, when the town's volunteer fire department was disbanded.

Pinellas Park council member Ed Taylor praised the agreement, saying his city was responding to a neighbor's call for help.

"I like the agreement very much," Taylor said. "I hope it's going to work for the term of this contract and for a long time after."

Kenneth City will pay Pinellas Park about $212,290 for the first year of the contract. That amount, a few hundred a month more than Lealman charged, will increase by 3 percent each year for the next five years. At the end of that time, the two sides will renegotiate costs.

Pinellas Park also has agreed to renovate Kenneth City's former fire station at 4600 58th St. N, across the parking lot from the Police Department. Kenneth City will reimburse Pinellas Park $5,000 a year for the repairs, which are estimated at $50,000.

In return, Pinellas Park will station at least three firefighter/emergency technicians in Kenneth City for each of three shifts. Pinellas Park also will provide a fire truck with Kenneth City's name on the side.

The biggest winners in the deal appear to be Pinellas Park's taxpayers.

The city will not have to hire firefighters or buy equipment to comply with the contract. It will merely move one fire truck and one crew from Station 33, just north of Pinellas Park City Hall, to the new location. The Pinellas Park station will be staffed with other crews already there.

This way, Pinellas Park officials say, they can better serve residents in the southern part of the city because firefighters and emergency medical personnel will be closer to them. And, because there is no extra expenditure, the money will go into Pinellas Park coffers, freeing money for other uses.

An added benefit is the money will pay for service Pinellas Park already provides. Kenneth City had 166 fire-related calls in 2009, Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis said. Although Lealman was the first responder on most of those, Pinellas Park provided equipment or other backup on more than half of them.

Kenneth City's residents are also winners. They will have a fire truck stationed within their town for the first time in 14 years. Town officials say that will improve response times, although it's unclear how much, as Lealman Station 19 is only about a mile away. Kenneth City will also get the ego boost of seeing its name on the truck.

Lealman, on the other hand, has lost a contract that would have brought in more than $200,000 a year for the next five years, a bit more than $1 million. It's unclear how the loss might affect the $4.7 million fire portion of its overall $6.8 million budget.

Yet Lealman's fire commission canceled the contract by a 4-0 vote last September. The board had been enraged by Kenneth City's annexation of several properties out of the district.

The contract allowed the annexations with no penalty although state law says that an annexing city has to pay special districts the property taxes for four years after the annexations. At the time, the total tax money in dispute was about $7,200 a year. Since then, Kenneth City has annexed more properties, bringing Lealman's annual tax loss to about $27,400.

The commission wanted Kenneth City to either stop annexing or to pay the four-year penalty if it did annex. It also wanted to retain the contract, but to shorten the term to four years. After that, the two would renegotiate fees.

Kenneth City Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis said she was willing to pay the penalty but wanted to extend the payment time over eight years. Lealman refused, so Zemaitis went to Pinellas Park, which already runs the town's building department.

Now Lealman has no contract and, if Kenneth City continues to annex, it will also ultimately be out the property tax money.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas Park, Kenneth City approve fire contract 02/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 3:26pm]
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