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Pinellas Park water agency may ebb

PINELLAS PARK — A state investigative office has tentatively concluded that the Legislature should eliminate a little-known agency created to solve drainage problems in mid Pinellas.

If the Legislature does not see fit to dissolve the Pinellas Park Water Management District, then it should consider allowing certain areas to opt out and be relieved of the property taxes the district imposes, the July 28 draft report added.

The conclusion was reached about a year after state Rep. Janet Long, R-Seminole, asked the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to investigate the water management district. Long's request came after property owners in the unincorporated Bayou Club and Lealman complained that they were being unfairly taxed to subsidize drainage projects that benefit Pinellas Park.

"Given the district will have achieved its legislatively created mission after completing its planned projects in fiscal year 2010-11, it would be appropriate for the Legislature to consider eliminating the district after that date and transferring the remaining maintenance activities to local governments in the area," the Office of Program Policy Analysis report reads.

It continues: "If the Legislature decides to continue the district, it should consider directing the district to conduct an independent engineering study to determine whether or not certain areas are receiving appropriate benefits from the district's projects and should remain part of the district."

Dissolution would require a special referendum so that voters who live in the district could decide whether to keep or eliminate the Pinellas Park Water Management District.

The draft report would become final after the water district has a chance to respond. That will likely happen after Thursday's board meeting. The meeting, open to the public, is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in the water district office, 6460 35th St. N, Pinellas Park.

If the preliminary recommendation to eliminate the district stands, Long said she would be willing to introduce a bill for a referendum.

"I don't see how there can be any harm in giving people a voice," Long said. "The last time I checked, we're living in a democracy."

But it's unlikely the road to such a referendum would be smooth. Even though Pinellas Park is not in charge of the district, city officials were preparing a response opposing the state findings.

The Pinellas Park Water Management District was created in 1975 by the Legislature to help solve drainage problems in mid Pinellas. Voters in a predetermined area agreed in 1976 to allow the district to be formed and gave it the power to levy taxes up to 3 mills. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of non-exempt, assessed property value. The water district board's current tax rate is 2.7264 mills. The 2007-08 budget is about $8.99-million.

The district established five main projects. Most are complete; the rest are scheduled to be finished in 2010 to 2011.

The water management district is run by an executive director, who is appointed by a three-member, nonelected board. Pinellas Park appoints two members. Pinellas County appoints the third.

The district's boundaries included what was then the city of Pinellas Park as well as unincorporated areas around the city. The unincorporated area has shrunk over the years as the city has annexed property. Parts of the district are still in the unincorporated area, which is where the protests have come from.

Residents in the upscale Bayou Club have long maintained that they should be allowed to opt out of the water management district because they have paid more than their fair share for the projects.

Residents of the unincorporated Lealman area have also complained that they have been unfairly taxed for more than 30 years to finance drainage projects that benefited the city and not Lealman. Lealman, they said, has a higher elevation than Pinellas Park and does not need the drainage help. They argue that the Lealman residents, some of the poorest in the county, should also be able to opt out.

If the Bayou Club and Lealman residents were excluded from the district, the entire tax burden would lie with Pinellas Park residents.

Pinellas Park water agency may ebb 08/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:44pm]
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