Six residents of Clearwater's island communities have launched a 90-day study of whether Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Island Estates should try to secede from Clearwater and form their own city. This is one of the most spectacularly bad ideas we've heard — bad for the islands, bad for the rest of Clearwater, and bad for Pinellas, which definitely does not need a 25th municipality.
Ninety days aren't needed to reach this conclusion. All it takes is a few minutes of thought and a careful reading of Florida statutes governing municipal contraction to conclude that this idea ought to be dropped, quickly, before more time and money are invested in studying it.
JoEllen Farnham, Cynthia Remley and Dick Jackson of Sand Key; Arnie Shal and David Muzio of Island Estates; and Jerry Murphy of Clearwater Beach have formed what they call the Islands Independence Initiative. In a recent meeting between the group and the St. Petersburg Times, only Farnham, the appointed spokesperson, would talk about the reasons for the initiative. She said after two years of dealing with issues affecting the islands, the group had concluded that there is "a philosophical difference between the city and the island communities in terms of needs, priorities and values."
It appears they want more — more respect, more attention, more stuff — and if the City of Clearwater won't give it to them, they will explore forming their own city.
The problems with that idea are too numerous to name, but the list begins with the daunting process of de-annexing a portion of a city, which is called "contraction." First, a petition proposing a de-annexation ordinance must be signed by 15 percent of the voters in the area to be excluded. Then the city government has six months to do a detailed feasibility study of the proposal (at a cost borne by all city taxpayers) and the City Council may either reject the petition or present an ordinance to contract the city boundaries. The ordinance then would have to be approved by voters in the area to be de-annexed (in a referendum paid for by the city).
But it is far more complicated than that. For example, the city of Clearwater would be entitled to payment for city assets and property in the de-annexed area, and the area could be held responsible for some of the city's indebtedness. All that would have to be calculated.
Also, as soon as a de-annexation occurs, the area is no longer subject to city laws or entitled to city services, but falls under the laws and services of county government — at least, in this case, until the islands could go through the even more laborious process of setting up their own city. And if that process failed, then what? Would the islands remain unincorporated county territory? Would the islands' residents be more satisfied being represented by the Pinellas County Commission?
Farnham said her group is mystified about why the islands can't get more satisfaction from the Clearwater City Council, because three of the five council members live on Sand Key and Clearwater Beach. Farnham said that because council members are elected citywide, "We suspect they feel a responsibility to the entire city."
As they should.
Do some island residents think tax dollars and capital projects and attention from city officials should be portioned out according to a neighborhood's prominence or location or the amount of taxes it pays? The city would be wrong to take that approach. Fortunately, it does not, but instead tries to allocate its resources more broadly so that no quadrant of the city is ignored — including the three island communities, which have received millions of dollars of investment by all city taxpayers and enjoy the benefits and security of being part of a city of 100,000.
Those whose frustrations have led them to consider seceding might want to study the financial struggles of other small beach towns in Pinellas and elsewhere, especially in light of new economic realities.
No neighborhood gets everything it wants. No local government is perfect. The residents of Sand Key, Clearwater Beach and Island Estates should carefully consider whether it is smarter to work within the existing system than to find themselves on the outside looking in.