KENNETH CITY — Pinellas Park officials have withdrawn their offer to take over fire service for this town because they don't want to take part in a sniping contest with the Lealman Fire Department, which currently has the contract.
"It's not pretty right now," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said. "We didn't want to be in the public games that are going on out there."
But Gustafson did not entirely rule out the possibility that Pinellas Park could eventually be responsible for fire service in Kenneth City. If the town and Lealman finally part ways, Pinellas Park would be willing to "assist Kenneth City, should the need arise," according to a letter from Gustafson to Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis.
Zemaitis said she does not believe Pinellas Park's move changes anything because it still leaves the door open for a future deal should the town decide not to contract with Lealman.
She asked Pinellas Park if it could take over fire service after Lealman canceled its contract earlier this year. Lealman canceled the contract because it was upset that Kenneth City had annexed 10 Lealman properties into the town.
Pinellas Park proposed to take over the fire service for a bit more than $200,000 a year, about the same that Lealman was charging. But Pinellas Park also proposed to locate a fire truck and three firefighters in Kenneth City's old fire station. Kenneth City would repay Pinellas Park for refurbishing the building.
Although Lealman canceled the contract, it is lobbying heavily to continue delivering service if Kenneth City will either agree not to annex any more properties from the district or to pay Lealman the taxes from future annexations for a period of four years after each parcel is annexed. The payments would be in addition to the costs of the fire contract.
Lealman community activists and fire officials have also been critical of Pinellas Park's proposal, saying the city would be shortchanging its own residents by locating a truck and three firefighters in Kenneth City.
In actuality, placing a fire truck in Kenneth City would benefit residents on the south side of Pinellas Park and would bring in extra money to city coffers without spending any more funds than already budgeted.
That's in sharp contrast to the Lealman-Kenneth City contract, which community activists have condemned as a sweetheart deal for the town.
Lealman fire officials are using that sweetheart deal as part of their sales pitch to Kenneth City by pointing out that if Lealman charged Kenneth City using the same tax rate it charges its taxpayers — $4.4828 per thousand dollars of taxable, assessed property value — the contract price would have been a whopping $698,191 a year. That's a huge difference — $492,118 — between what the town is paying and what it would have paid for fire service had it received equal treatment with Lealman's own property owners.
Pinellas Park officials have declined to comment on the apparent contradiction between Lealman's actions and its rhetoric about the city's offer.
Instead, they've decided to withdraw from the fray.
"Don't stick us in the middle of it," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said. "We want to be good neighbors with everybody. It's not easy to do."