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With fire talks fizzled, Kenneth City may turn to Pinellas Park for service

KENNETH CITY — Negotiations to resolve a dispute with the Lealman Fire District over annexation have fallen through, leaving Pinellas Park with a chance to deliver fire service to this town.

The move to reopen negotiations with Pinellas Park came during a workshop Wednesday when Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis announced that, after four months of talks, Kenneth City and Lealman could not reach agreement.

"Negotiations are over," Zemaitis said. "There's really not much left to do there."

Zemaitis said there were several sticking points.

The first involved property taxes from annexed properties. State law requires an annexing city to pay a special district like Lealman the property taxes it would have charged for four years after the annexation. Zemaitis said she was willing to pay the full amount but wanted Lealman to allow Kenneth City more time to pay.

Lealman also wanted to shorten the terms of the contract, which, Zemaitis said, would give them an opportunity to drastically increase the cost of fire service.

Zemaitis also said she was upset by the district's tactics in trying to interfere with annexations. She said fire district officials visited property owners who had agreed to annex in an effort to dissuade them. Zemaitis said she would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed, but that she would have provided accurate information.

Lealman fire Commissioner Vivian Campbell, who spoke during the meeting, did not deny the accusation of trying to interfere. Instead, she criticized Kenneth City for its decision to halt negotiations and look to another city for fire service. Lealman, she said, had long provided good service to the town and saved it more money that it knew.

"We saved your butt," Campbell said.

Kenneth City disbanded its own fire department in 1996 and hired Lealman to provide service. The two signed a 10-year contract in 2005 that established an annual fee for Lealman's service. The amount goes up by 3 percent each year. The fee for the 2009-10 fiscal year would have been $206,073.

Although the written contract lets Kenneth City annex into the Lealman district, fire officials say they had an oral agreement with the town not to annex. In exchange, Lealman promised to keep its fees low.

But Zemaitis, who was elected last March, had no such verbal understanding with the district and, late last summer, moved to annex property from the district. One of her lures was the fact that annexing property owners would still get Lealman fire service but at a much lower cost.

When Kenneth City annexed several parcels, the fire board canceled the contract. Kenneth City threw the contract open for bids and received one from Pinellas Park, as well as an offer to negotiate from Lealman.

Pinellas Park withdrew its offer, saying it did not want to get caught in a three-way tug-of-war.

Pinellas Park still felt that way Thursday, although city spokesman Tim Caddell said officials would be willing to talk.

"We want to be good neighbors," Caddell said. "If there's something that's good for everybody (an agreement would be possible but) we hope we don't get burned again."

That is possible. The council's decision was to let Zemaitis negotiate with Pinellas Park. A contract would have to be voted on, and at least two of the five Kenneth City council members support Lealman.

Al Carrier said Lealman has provided good service and was within its rights to cancel the contract to help bring Kenneth City to its senses.

Wanda Dudley said she was concerned about the ethics of changing fire providers, but she was most concerned about losing volunteer help that Lealman firefighters had provided to put on the Christmas parade and other community events.

Zemaitis said the issue is not one of volunteers for parades but of getting the best fire service at the best cost.

Zemaitis' sentiment was echoed by Joanne DeSimone, a candidate for the Kenneth City council in the March 9 election. DeSimone, a former Redington Beach town commissioner, said the council's duty is to provide good fire service at the best cost possible.

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

With fire talks fizzled, Kenneth City may turn to Pinellas Park for service 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 4:52pm]
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