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Seminole reconsidering merger with fire district

(ran SE edition)

It's possible the city of Seminole could triple the size of its annual budget in one move: swallowing up Seminole Fire Rescue, the independent agency that offers fire and emergency services to the area around Lake Seminole.

Until recently, that idea seemed out of the question.

After all, the fire department has twice as many employees and double the budget of the small city. Mayor Holland Mangum has said a merger would be "like the tail wagging the dog."

But then in the past week, some people, including the mayor, the fire chief and the county administrator, have started talking seriously about the idea. So seriously, in fact, that they have fueled untrue rumors that the Nov. 8 election of fire district directors would be canceled.

Even if the merger took place, people who live in the fire district likely would see little change. The fire department would have the same equipment and employees. They would just work for somebody else.

The whole debate got started almost a year ago when the county, which contracts with the fire district for fire protection, said Seminole Fire Rescue needed to change its corporate structure.

County Administrator Fred Marquis said he didn't think it was right that taxpayers financed the department's operations but didn't have any say in who ran the department. The fire department, a private corporation, elected its board from within the volunteers and firefighters.

There was also a legal glitch with the firefighters' pension fund. It's a technical problem, but one that could be corrected if the fire district became a government entity.

So last spring the department ousted its private board. The county appointed an interim board to serve until new directors could be elected Nov. 8. And officials started talking about how to become a government.

The original plan was to ask the Legislature to make the Seminole fire district an independent taxing authority. That would fix the pension problem.

Critics, however, say Seminole already has enough government. They also said they were worried that the special taxing district would raise taxes too much for fire service.

Mayor Mangum said he was approached with the merger proposal within the past week or two by opponents to the special district and by Marquis.

Mangum and Fire Chief John Leahy met Monday and decided that they thought the merger could work.

Mangum said he has opposed a merger in the past because the fire department is so much bigger than the city. The fire department has more than 100 employees and a $7-million annual budget. The city, with a $3.5-million budget, has about 40 employees.

But Mangum said he has come to believe that the merger would be best for the department.

Marquis said he would prefer that the department merge with the city. Then, he said, the county would contract with the city to serve the unincorporated areas. That's the same arrangement the county has with St. Petersburg to cover the Gandy area and with Largo and Pinellas Park to cover the High Point area.

And, Marquis said, the county would retain authority to oversee the fire budget. If the special taxing district is set up, the county would have no authority to regulate the fire budget.

The talk of scrapping the independent taxing district has angered Tim Schuler, president of the interim board.

He appeared before the Seminole City Council on Tuesday night and lambasted Mangum and Leahy, accusing them of trying to cancel the election.

The interim board has spent $15,000 in legal fees to study the options, Schuler said, and its attorneys have said the special district is the best option. A committee that Schuler heads has been working since May to draw up draft legislation.

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