There has been much discussion about St. Petersburg's recently completed annexation of 18 acres of commercial property in Tierra Verde. While the tone of the comments, at times, has been disappointing, it highlights the need for a clear discussion of the city's position and rationale.
First, St. Petersburg has a decades-old policy of pursuing annexation, especially when approached by property owners wishing to annex into the city. Annexation helps expand the tax base and spread the cost of city services. City residents bear the cost of parks, recreation centers, roads and other facilities that are used by residents in surrounding areas. The Pier, Mahaffey Theater, Tropicana Field, the Coliseum and others receive millions of dollars of subsidy from city taxpayers. City tax dollars have helped museums, events, festivals and job creation for the region. Redevelopment and annexation help spread the costs, and the city has pursued both. This approach, combined with cost-saving measures, has enabled St. Petersburg to reduce its city tax rate from 9.632 mills to 5.9125 mills over the past 20 years.
Second, the recent annexation was initiated by the property owners seeking annexation, not by the city. The city is not annexing, is not attempting to annex, and during my term has never planned to annex, the homes of the Tierra Verde residents who have written letters, spoken at forums or complained to county officials and legislators. In fact, the residents who are not being annexed are telling the property owners who want to be annexed that they cannot exercise their right to do so. They further are telling city taxpayers that they cannot have their tax burden spread by having properties annexed, even though the people who own the property to be annexed want to be in the city.
Third, a legitimate point that the Tierra Verde community association has raised is that it does not want the annexed property's development to negatively impact the quality of the community. The present use of the annexed property includes an abandoned time-share/motel, two five-story boat warehouses and a retail strip center. There are also those who prefer the beauty of the natural island before the condominiums and upscale housing developments, but it is not likely that we will return to that day.
I met with representatives of the Tierra Verde community association after we delayed the annexation and asked their spokesman to identify his primary concern. He advised that it was the density of the development. After more meetings, the association's representative advised that eight-story condominium buildings, along with other items, "are the basic elements of the potential resort development having positive elements for both parties."
The city listened. After meeting with association officials and holding two public forums for Tierra Verde residents, we passed an annexation agreement with the property owners that includes a restriction that developments on the property cannot exceed eight stories, the limit proposed by the Tierra Verde association representative. This compares to the five-story boat warehouses on the property and the approximately 15-story development otherwise possible.
The city's recently revised land development code will ensure that quality development occurs. Among other things, the county will allow uses like a hotel on the annexed property but not residential development, while the city, in addition to the other uses, will allow residential development — a far less intrusive use. Tierra Verde residents, along with St. Petersburg residents, will have an additional opportunity for input when a development proposal is submitted.
Finally, the annexation rules statewide are widely considered to be in need of change, but after many years of discussion both in Tallahassee and Pinellas County, no consensus has been reached. In unincorporated pockets throughout the county, county officials represent the residents. The county provides municipal services, while often these areas are surrounded by a single city — hardly an efficient way of providing government services.
The current property tax system favors taxing districts with highly valued properties. Since Tierra Verde has some of the county's more expensive homes, and thus a higher tax base, it can charge a relatively low tax rate to provide services. Tierra Verde residents pay only 1.3997 mills tax rate for their fire district (only part of the total tax rate), while residents of Lealman, another unincorporated area with residents of far less means, pay 3.98 mills tax for their fire district — almost three times the Tierra Verde tax rate.
It seems to be an antiprogressive tax system; however, the city's present annexation does not change this status or bring Tierra Verde homes into the city. Since it would take a voter referendum of the residents of Tierra Verde to bring them into the city, and I do not believe that would pass, I have never sought annexation of the resident's homes, and have no intention to do so.
While we are not seeking to annex the homes of any Tierra Verde resident, I believe the citizens of St. Petersburg have the right for their tax burden to be spread by adding to the city's tax rolls those commercial property owners who have asked to become part of our city.
Rick Baker is the mayor of St. Petersburg.