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Seminole should ease concerns on land deal

Seminole City Council members made an embarrassing scene last week when they tried to discuss the future of property that the city owns for recreational use. The debate disintegrated into name-calling and nasty remarks. The city attorney had to plead for council members to act like grown-ups.

The Community Christian School property has been a flash point in Seminole ever since Mayor Holland Mangum, who also is the city administrator, lobbied for its purchase. The property was bought in two parts: six acres for $1.5-million in 1991 and nine acres for $1-million this spring.

Some residents thought the price paid was more than the property was worth. Others said the city, with a population of 10,000 and an operating budget of a little more than $3-million, was too small to take on more indebtedness, especially after building a library.

But Mangum argued that open land in Seminole was disappearing and the city needed to build more ballfields for children. He pushed hard for the first purchase in 1991, and it was largely because of that pushing the City Council voted to buy the property.

But last year the city developed a budget shortfall. Mangum said an 85 percent tax increase would be necessary. And word leaked out that the school building might be structurally deficient.

Residents fought the tax increase, which was reduced to 33 percent. Despite lingering resentment among residents, Mangum pushed again this year for the second purchase, which the City Council approved.

In the March city election, four newcomers were elected to City Council. Two, Darrell DiGrazia and Ron Smith, argued last week for the city to sell the 15 acres. They said the property is a white elephant that is costing the city more than it is worth.

But hundreds of Seminole residents participate in recreational programs on the property. "And we're not getting a penny from it," DiGrazia retorted at last week's meeting. The City Charter doesn't require the city to provide recreational facilities, so perhaps the money would be better spent to start a city police department, DiGrazia said. Seminole contracts with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

This week, the council voted to keep the property after hearing impassioned support from some residents who participate in recreation programs there.

Wise move. It certainly was better to keep the property than to create a police department. Whether Seminole's charter requires that the city provide recreational programs or not, a full-service city does so to give its residents a higher quality of life. And as last week's tragic shooting of a Belleair police officer proves, another small-town police department is the last thing that Pinellas County needs.

Nothing would have been gained by selling the property, which some residents obviously have come to appreciate as much as their new and busy library. The council has asked its Parks and Recreation Committee to recommend a long-range plan for the facility.

But while looking ahead and approving appropriate uses of the property, the council would be remiss if it didn't look back as well. There are lingering questions about the way the property purchase was handled. Appraisals were lacking, safety questions about the school building were quietly brushed aside, and it isn't clear why the purchase was done in two parts or whether the cost strained the city budget.

Council members need to know what happened and why and to make sure that there is no reason in the future for residents to accuse city officials of either poor planning or underhandedness.