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Tierra Verde aims to dump St. Petersburg's firefighting contract after annexation battle

TIERRA VERDE — Still fuming over St. Petersburg's recent annexation of a sliver of this unincorporated island, residents here might have found a new way to voice their opposition.

Island homeowners want Pinellas County to stop paying St. Petersburg to provide firefighters for Tierra Verde's lone fire station. The contract loss could cost St. Petersburg more than $2 million and threaten 12 public safety positions that serve southern Pinellas County.

Tierra Verde residents said they simply want the county to explore other options to see whether they can get a better deal.

But St. Petersburg officials said Tierra Verde is trying to punish the city for annexing 18 acres at the tip of the island last year in a widely opposed development deal that is being challenged in court.

"This is generated by a desire to remove us in response to our annexation effort," St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue Chief James Large wrote in a letter to fire personnel Friday. "It is unfortunate that this is the case after years of quality service delivery."

St. Petersburg, however, won't give up the lucrative deal without a fight.

Large plans to meet with Tierra Verde residents to try to change their minds, said spokesman Joel Granata.

If not, some St. Petersburg homes that border Tierra Verde could soon feel the loss. The closest St. Petersburg fire station is miles away at 5150 31st S.

"It's a straight shot down the Bayway, but it will definitely be a delay in service," said Granata. He did not know how long the delay would be.

The city also will have to figure out how and whether to absorb its 12 Tierra Verde firefighters.

"It's not good budget news," said Granata.

Tierra Verde, a small island of roughly 5,000 residents, sits off the Pinellas Bayway, between St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg has provided its firefighters to the island's fire station since at least 1988. The fire station serves Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde and some neighboring St. Petersburg neighborhoods, including the land it annexed from Tierra Verde and Isla De Sol.

St. Petersburg's service contract, usually renewed without much discussion, expires in September.

Only a neighboring community can apply to meet Tierra Verde's fire needs, which means if St. Petersburg's contract isn't extended, St. Pete Beach will likely wind up with the job, said Michael Cooksey, fire division manager for Pinellas County.

St. Pete Beach likely will pursue the contract, said Deputy Fire Chief Tom Malone.

Frank Lauro, administrator for the Tierra Verde Community Association, said residents simply want to negotiate the best deal possible.

The only road to Tierra Verde is the aging Pinellas Bayway drawbridge. St. Petersburg's fire truck often leaves Tierra Verde to respond to calls from Isla De Sol.

"If the bridge gets stuck (while raised), what happens to someone on Tierra Verde?" Lauro said. "What happens if someone is having a heart attack? That was the main concern of the board."

FAST FACTS

About the Tierra Verde annexation

• The St. Petersburg City Council voted to annex 18 acres of Tierra Verde in November despite widespread opposition from residents and political leaders across Pinellas County. A majority of property owners who were annexed agreed to the land deal.

• Mediation attempts between the county and city failed. The county sued the city. That case is pending.

• State legislators also are fighting the annexation. Local legislators have put forward a bill that would require every voter in Tierra Verde to agree to any annexation anywhere on the island. The bill would void St. Petersburg's annexation of the business district at the tip of Tierra Verde.

• The St. Petersburg City Council is working on land development regulations for the annexed land.

Tierra Verde aims to dump St. Petersburg's firefighting contract after annexation battle 04/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 7:12am]

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