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Annexation is a taxing issue for fire district

Pinellas County property owners increasingly are caught in the cross-fire between independent fire districts and cities annexing unincorporated areas.

At issue is which government agency has the right to tax homeowners for fire protection _ the state-designated fire district or the new municipal government.

A short-term result is that some properties are being double-taxed, with neither taxing entity willing to give in. A long-term result could be the demise of the county's independent fire districts as their territory and revenue base erode.

"Paying taxes is bad enough, but paying twice? I'm just not going to do it," said Ross Brittain, owner of a real estate office involuntarily annexed into the city of Largo last May. "It's not just the tax, it's the principle of the thing. I don't feel it's right and may not even be constitutional."

Brittain's office is within the boundaries of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District. He pays $309 a year for fire protection from the district. But now he is also required to pay property taxes to Largo. Those taxes include money used to finance Largo's fire department.

Last month, Largo sent a resolution to the County Commission promising to rebate 22 percent of Brittain's property taxes for one year "if and only if" the commission sided with the city. Largo wanted the commission to support legislation that would, in effect, eliminate the fire district's control of its own boundaries.

"Largo told me if the county agreed, they would knock off $51 and some change," Brittain said. "I won't budge and told them to stick it."

Largo City Manager Steven Stanton now says the issue must be resolved by the state Legislature, which originally established most of the special fire protection taxing districts. He maintains that if cities are prevented from collecting fire protection revenues, "annexations may not be viable anymore."

The County Commission has scheduled a work session for 9:30 a.m. July 30 to discuss annexation procedures and issues.

Stanton said it is unfortunate that some property owners may be double-taxed, but stressed the city will not waive its right to tax newly annexed properties.

When asked whether Largo plans additional annexations within the Suncoast fire district boundaries, he said, "Sure we do."

Tuesday, the Pinellas Suncoast board of commissioners erupted at Largo's insistence on taxing its district members and called on the County Commission to reject Largo's position and protect the viability of the district.

Largo's proposal would result in increased costs for homeowners remaining in the fire district, creating "extreme budgetary and planning difficulties," according to the district. In the next few years, the Pinellas Suncoast district is planning to replace its ladder truck, buy a new fire engine and replace its mainland-based Station 28.

"How do we plan (to replace equipment or aging buildings) when someone is trying to dissolve your revenue base?" asked fire district Commissioner Joseph Girolamo. The district charges $120 a year for homes, $180 and up for commercial units.

Currently, the district provides fire protection to 12,000 homes and businesses along the mid-county beaches from Indian Shores to Belleair Beach and within a sizable chunk of the mainland south of Walsingham Road and east of 131st Street. This mainland area, comprising nearly half the district's territory, is an annexation target for Largo as well as for nearby Seminole, which has rapidly expanded its borders in the past year.

Just last year, the state Legislature, which originally chartered the fire district in 1953, updated the district's charter and certified its present boundaries. By law, those boundaries cannot be changed except by a referendum of affected property owners that must be ratified by the Legislature.

"Our boundaries should remain constant no matter who annexes what," said the board's attorney, Jeff Albinson. "They are allowed to annex. There is nothing we can do about that. But we want to make sure they are not taxing properties for fire service."

Last year the Suncoast board voluntarily gave up five of its district properties that would be annexed to Largo. "We felt sorry for the taxpayers," Chairman Bill Ripley said.

"We need to stop being the nice guy," Girolamo said.

Although interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster could not be reached for comment, it appears the county may side with the fire districts.

Stanton said Lancaster told him several weeks ago the county would not support Largo and is instead considering a guarantee of fire district boundaries. "In the last six months, the county has looked for ways to stop the annexing process," Stanton said.

The boundaries of the Lealman Fire District are not protected by the Legislature. Annexations by Pinellas Park and Seminole have eroded the district's size and revenue base.

Other independent fire districts are located in Palm Harbor, which also has sent a resolution to the county calling for protection against annexation, and the East Lake and High Point areas.

In May, County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said independent fire districts "should remain whole regardless of annexation" and affected property owners should be "held harmless from city taxes for fire services."