This week, Pinellas cities and the county government begin meetings to negotiate a peace treaty of sorts. They will attempt to map annexation boundaries around each city and annexation-free zones where unincorporated residents would be protected from raids by cities eager to expand. It's important work, and it should lower tensions in some neighborhoods and avoid battles between local governments that drain energy and money.
Unfortunately, declining government revenues join politics and parochialism as potential roadblocks. Cities want to expand their tax bases; the county does not want its tax base to erode. St. Petersburg and Oldsmar already have complicated negotiations by pursuing controversial annexations in two unincorporated communities, Tierra Verde and East Lake Woodlands, where residents have long resisted joining a city. St. Petersburg in particular is sending the wrong message by pushing through an annexation of 28 acres of Tierra Verde this week, cutting across open water to commercial property and ignoring the county's opposition.
Pinellas has 24 municipalities, and some of the smaller ones regard annexation as the key to financial survival. During the 1990s, unincorporated areas were subjected to frequent annexation overtures from cities, and there were even annexations across city lines.
Eight years ago, the Pinellas annexation wars were brought to a close — or so everyone thought — by a negotiated agreement that established service boundaries around each city. Cities could only approve voluntary annexations within those boxes. Pinellas voters agreed that the County Commission should have the authority to adopt an ordinance setting up the annexation boundaries and the criteria for voluntary annexations.
Then the county changed the boundary around unincorporated Lealman and three cities sued. In September 2007, an appeals court agreed with a lower court that the annexation rules and boundaries should have been contained in the county charter rather than in an ordinance. The decision invalidated the boundary map.
In January, a committee of six elected city and county officials began meeting quietly to figure out how to prevent the outbreak of a new annexation war. The group suggested the process now being launched, and the county has invited all of the municipalities and several special districts to participate. The goal is to create annexation rules and a new boundary map. Most of the cities have said they will participate in the process that begins Wednesday.
It will be complicated and sensitive but essential work. Pinellas residents don't want to be blindsided by annexations. They don't want to have to fend off overtures from multiple jurisdictions, and they don't want to be victimized by tricks cities employed in the past to accomplish annexations. The rules need to be crystal clear, the annexation territories need to be mapped out, and the result should be to bring an orderly and transparent annexation process to Pinellas.