This is one of those local intergovernment battles that seems endemic to Pinellas County and puts taxpayers to sleep. The Pinellas County Commission will hold a public hearing tonight on one of those arcane issues that involves the county exercising its legitimate authority and the cities whining about being big-footed. While it's easy to portray the county as the bully, Pinellas officials are on the right side of this turf war and will save taxpayers money in the long run.
The arm wrestling involves Pinellas' authority as a charter county to prevail when the county's ordinances conflict with city ordinances. The issue flared up after county officials discovered Pinellas would have to pay Largo about $205,000 more for building permits for the new public safety complex than the county would have to pay itself if the complex were being built in an unincorporated area. County Administrator Bob LaSala's proposed solution: a new county ordinance that exempts the county from obtaining city construction permits when the county and city regulations differ. That sounds reasonable to everyone except city officials who feel unnecessarily threatened.
Largo officials predictably objected and wondered about a lawsuit, even though the city ceded its permitting authority to the county in other areas. Not to be outdone when it comes to feeling picked on by Pinellas, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn weighed in with overblown doomsday scenarios. What if the county allowed panhandling and sleeping on the Pinellas Trail, which is banned by the city? What if the county allowed on one of the county buildings in St. Petersburg those big, bad digital billboards, which the city foolishly refused to allow along the interstate even though it meant removing a gazillion traditional billboards on city streets? What if? What if? What if?
Tonight's public hearing could provide a forum for more horror stories of the county exerting control over the defenseless cities. In reality, this is a tempest in a teapot. The county charter gives Pinellas authority over solid waste disposal facilities, regional sewage treatment plants, county-owned parks and buildings and the "development and operation of public health or welfare services or facilities in Pinellas County.'' That just about covers all the big stuff. The proposed county ordinance makes clear it will regulate itself in construction of those properties of countywide importance that happen to be located in cities. Translation: It will handle the permitting itself for the countywide public safety complex being built in Largo and save taxpayers money as well.
To be fair, the county could have handled this better. The proposed change caught the cities by surprise, and the latest version is clearer and more precise than the original. These are the sorts of details that the county considers routine and the cities too often see as conspiracies to erode local control. If these changes cannot go smoothly, it makes the bigger cooperative challenges such as reducing the cost of the countywide EMS system that much tougher. In this case, the cities' fears are misplaced and the county should move forward to streamline a permitting process and save taxpayers money.