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Squabble over fire station's location heats up

Seminole's plans for a station inside the Indian Rocks district fuel talk about lawsuits from both sides.

The Indian Rocks Fire District has set aside $25,000 to fight something it sees as a threat.

Not a fire _ a new fire station.

Seminole wants to build one on land that is just inside the border of the fire district, and the district says, "No way."

"We can't just stand idly by and let some other people provide fire service within our district," the district's attorney Jeff Albinson said.

The district hopes to work things out without going to court, he said, but the district's board has reserved up to $25,000 to pay for a lawsuit against the new station if it comes to that.

Seminole officials, meanwhile, said they are disappointed and dismayed at the fire district's stance.

City Manager Frank Edmunds said that if the City Council approves, he may launch a pre-emptive strike. He may ask a judge to settle the issue quickly.

"It would be a waste of taxpayers dollars to prolong this," Edmunds said.

The controversy started last fall when the small Redington beach communities decided to allow Seminole and Madeira Beach to provide their fire and emergency services, beginning Oct. 1.

The Indian Rocks district now provides the Redingtons with fire and emergency service, but the small towns said they tried unsuccessfully for months to reach a permanent agreement with the Indian Rocks district. Seminole, in partnership with Madeira Beach, offered them a better deal, they decided.

As part of the deal, Seminole agreed to build a fire station on land owned by the county near the west end of the Park Boulevard Bridge. From the new station, Seminole plans to serve the Redingtons and the western part of the Seminole area. It plans to shift some equipment to the station from its station near Seminole Middle School.

The land for the new station, however, lies in Indian Shores, which is part of the Indian Rocks Fire District. The fire district says Seminole has no right to put the station inside the district's boundaries.

Albinson said he wants to try to settle the dispute through a procedure the Legislature enacted to allow municipalities to iron out their differences without going to court.

The fire board is expected to authorize the mediation at a special meeting Tuesday. A mediation session has tentatively been set for Feb. 18.

Edmunds, meanwhile, said that if the Indian Rocks district continues to pursue the mediation, he will ask the Seminole City Council on Feb. 8 for permission to sue the district. He accused the district's board of playing politics.

The county's emergency system is set up so that the 911 center sends the closest available unit to a fire or emergency. Edmunds said that means Seminole would make a lot of runs into Indian Shores from the new station.

But it wouldn't cost the Indian Rocks district anything, and Seminole would get no more money from the county for those runs.

The new station, Edmunds said, "is going to clearly benefit their district's citizens by an improved response time at no cost to the taxpayers."

The Indian Rocks district was formed in 1953 to provide emergency services to its residents, Edmunds said. Threatening legal action to keep out another fire station, he said, is counter to that purpose.

"Clearly this action is contrary to public policy and public safety," Edmunds said. "There is no reason for it other than their parochial concern of protecting their district in the political sense and not the public safety sense."

Dwaine Booth, assistant director of Pinellas County Fire and Emergency Medical Services, said the county's property is a good location for the new station. "We're moving ahead to get that fire station under way," he said.

"It will be an improvement of (Indian Rocks') service, and it's not costing them anything," Booth said.

The Indian Rocks district did not lose any funding, Booth said, even though it lost the contract to serve the Redingtons.

Albinson, the fire district's attorney, said that isn't the point.

"It's our position," Albinson said, "that our charter provisions make the fire district the sole and primary service provider authorized within our district boundaries."

The county agreement to send the nearest unit to an emergency or fire means Seminole "will end up serving a fairly sizable portion of our fire district, which just can't be under our charter," Albinson said.

"It's not just that we have the right (to provide the service.)," he continued. "We have the duty and the obligation. . . . What in effect happens if Seminole builds that station (is that it) becomes a kind of de facto annexation for fire suppression services."

Seminole attorney John Elias said he has given the fire district's charter a preliminary review and sees nothing so far that says the district has the exclusive right and authority to provide emergency services within the district.

Already, he and other officials said, Seminole and other fire providers come into the district to provide service.

Last week, for example, there was a fire near the border of Indian Shores and Indian Rocks Beach. The Indian Rocks fire district sent two units, Madeira Beach sent one and Seminole sent four.

That's true, Albinson said.

"We have no beef with that set-up," he said. "What we question is whether they can come into our district and build a facility within our boundaries. That makes them the primary service provider. That's what our charter is designed to avoid."

Edmunds said Seminole isn't trying to take over the Indian Rocks district. "We have never stated that was our intention," he said. "In fact, I can say it is not our intention."

The problem from the Indian Rocks district's view, Albinson said, is that the district's residents pay taxes in the fire district and elect the district board to run things. If Seminole becomes the government that provides most of the emergency services in Indian Shores, those resident have no say over Seminole's operations.

Seminole would never be allowed to come in and take over another city's water system or sewer system, Albinson said, so why should it be able to move in on the fire service?

"If we were talking wastewater and not fire service, there would be no way Seminole would be allowed to do that," he said, "and frankly, I think it should be analogous."

The board isn't trying to get back at Seminole for taking the Redingtons' business, Albinson said. It is simply worried about encroachment.

"We wouldn't be initiating a legal challenge because we felt like somebody is snubbing us," Albinson said. "Frankly, our board couldn't care less if Seminole built the thing anywhere but in our district. If they want to build in one of those towns or on land on the other side of the bridge, who the heck cares?"