Palm Harbor's fledgling effort to incorporate as a city has died an early death, at least for this year, in the Florida Legislature. While local organizers are disappointed — one even launched a hunger strike in protest — this forced delay in the group's timetable is not a negative for the community. A step so bold needs more time and study.
Palm Harbor residents, sometimes unhappy with county government, have talked for years about whether to incorporate, but proponents got well beyond talk this year. They did a feasibility study that was forwarded to the state, and they prepared an incorporation bill that would have set a November referendum in Palm Harbor if approved by the Legislature. They even found a legislative sponsor, Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, to introduce House Bill 1359, and were waiting for the bill to be heard by legislative committees.
That's where the effort ran off the track. Rep. Frank Attkisson of Kissimmee, chairman of the Government Efficiency and Accountability Council, refused to put the bill on his committee's calendar, saying, "This is not the right time to pass this type of legislation."
He is right. State, county and city governments throughout Florida are struggling for financial viability in the face of a national economic downturn, a disastrous housing market, rising unemployment and publicly mandated tax cuts. It is not a stretch to predict that some small Florida cities will not survive the crisis.
In such an environment, the talk ought to be of how to consolidate services, reduce layers of government bureaucracy and deliver services more efficiently.
Yet some residents of Palm Harbor wanted to make their community Pinellas County's 25th — 25th! — municipality. And they contended that they could operate the town of Palm Harbor without increasing the amount of taxes and fees now paid by residents.
To be fair, Palm Harbor might have a better chance for financial success than some of the small residential communities that seek to incorporate. It has a population of more than 90,000, and it has a commercial tax base thanks to the presence of two commercial corridors, U.S. 19 and Alt. U.S. 19, running through it. But its very size also presents enormous challenges for those who would create a city government and the vast array of services, facilities and programs that residents of a city would demand now and in the future.
Jim Kleyman, spokesman for the Palm Harbor Coalition, expressed his disappointment in the Legislature's decision this way:
"Apparently someone in the Legislature, not Representative Nehr but someone more senior, thinks that we aren't smart enough, aren't concerned enough, aren't righteous enough to take more control over our local government and our communities. This is the true shame of this bill's death in this session."
That attitude reflects a lack of appreciation for the Legislature's responsibility to carefully examine such proposals. In this challenging legislative session, lawmakers may not have had the opportunity to carry out that responsibility.
The delay gives local organizers more time to examine every aspect of their plan and draw more of the community into the study. It gives Palm Harbor residents more time to understand the intricacies of legal incorporation and future pros and cons. That is all to the good.