LEALMAN — Voters in this unincorporated area have a chance on Election Day to bring change to the Lealman Fire Commission — at least that's the promise of two challengers for seats on the board.
First-time candidate Robert W. Payne is facing incumbent Julie Adams in the race for Seat 3. Former Lealman fire commissioner John Frank wants to oust Vivian Diane Campbell, who holds Seat 5.
Payne and Frank have some issues in common. Both say commission members just nod their heads when fire Chief Rick Graham asks them to spend money rather than evaluating the wisdom of proposed expenditures. They say that the commission has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax money buying unnecessary, expensive equipment, such as a ladder truck.
The district has few tall buildings, they say, and Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg have ladder trucks if Lealman should need one. That's part of the reason for the county's mutual aid agreement, they say, so smaller departments don't have to spend a lot of money on equipment that will not be used very often.
Commissioners have also failed to protect taxpayers in other ways, Frank says. A prime example is the contract Lealman has to provide fire service to Kenneth City.
The contract, which will bring $200,070 into the district during this fiscal year, is unfair to Lealman taxpayers, Frank says. The contract, he said, gives Kenneth City a break on the cost of fire service, which means Lealman taxpayers are essentially helping to subsidize fire service to the approximately 4,500 residents of Kenneth City.
Campbell did not return a message asking for comment. But in the past, district officials have defended the Kenneth City contract by saying that Kenneth City could contract for fire service with either St. Petersburg or Pinellas Park. But because Lealman is the first responder under the county's mutual aid agreement, the district would still have to run those calls without getting any money whatsoever. Lealman officials have said it is better to get something than nothing for the service.
Frank said his solution is simple: Make Kenneth City a part of the fire district. That would give Kenneth City residents the right to vote for board members, and would also mean they would pay their share of the district expenses from property taxes. Not only would Kenneth City be paying its fair share, Frank said, the addition of more than a thousand parcels would help lower the tax rate for all property owners who are now in the Lealman district because the cost would be spread over more property owners.
Payne has centered much of his criticism on the fire service itself. The district, he said, has not kept up with current technology that could save lives and property.
Payne's opponent, Adams, said, "Our firefighters, in my opinion, are the best in the county and that they do an excellent job. As far as upgrading equipment, we stay on top of technology. We may not (be on the very) top but we have more than adequate equipment."
"I think we are on the cutting edge," Adams said. But the district has to be fiscally responsible.
Adams said she thinks the district has solved the annexation problems with Pinellas Park and Seminole. The major issue facing the district, she said, is the threat of annexation from St. Petersburg.