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Lealman, the amoeba with resolve

(ran EAST, WEST, BEACH, editions)

State legislators last week delivered a crippling blow to activists who want to create a city by abandoning a bill that would have safeguarded residents from annexations.

"We're dead in the water this year," said Ray Neri, referring to legislative efforts to protect the unincorporated area's borders.

Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, denied that the drive to cityhood had suffered a fatal blow. "I guess we go to Plan Z. It must be Plan Z; we've done every other plan."

Still alive is a related proposal to ensure that fire taxes from areas annexed into adjacent cities would go to the Lealman Fire District.

Under the current system, the fire taxes go to the annexing city even if Lealman continues to provide fire service. Lealman taxpayers and fire officials have complained of the increased monetary burden placed on them as taxes increase to make up the lost revenue.

Legislators plan to discuss the proposal at their meeting Thursday.

Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, also had planned to introduce a bill that would have placed a two-year moratorium on annexations into the fire district.

The ban was designed to give Lealman activists a chance to raise $25,000 for a feasibility study that would determine if incorporation made financial sense.

The moratorium also would have allowed time for a referendum in which Lealman voters could decide whether they wanted to become a city.

Farkas decided to withdraw the bill after Pinellas County's state senators declined to support it. The bill would not have passed, said Chris Davis, a Farkas spokesman.

Farkas did not return a phone message asking for comment.

The legislative letdown was the latest pothole in the bumpy road that Community Association members have traveled the past couple of years.

The group was established to ignite a revitalization effort. Instead, the neighbors became more aware of the fact that Pinellas Park, Seminole, St. Petersburg and Kenneth City were annexing into their area, taking chunks of the Lealman tax base with them.

Association members also fretted that once they spruced up the area, the cities would annex and leave behind poor housing and needy people.

"We're going to create one of the largest slums in central Pinellas County," said Jon Frank of the Community Association board.

Activists realized their best defense was to become a city. First, they tried to merge with Kenneth City. But the little town that is surrounded on three sides by Lealman and outnumbered 8-1 declined to explore the idea.

The next idea, to form the city of Lealman, has proven to be difficult and expensive. It's hard to set boundaries with the continual annexations.

As Frank told Pinellas Park Council members Thursday: "Every Pinellas Park council meeting, the shape of Lealman changes."

There have been bright moments. Farkas and state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, attended a Lealman meeting and were so taken by the enthusiasm they each gave $20 to the cause and vowed help.

But when the time came to support the Farkas bill, Sebesta refused, saying some in Lealman opposed cityhood and that he believed an enforced moratorium was not the proper way to go about it. The neighboring cities also opposed.

Farkas withdrew the bill days after Sebesta's reluctance became public.

"The whole thing that bothered me most is (that) the support vanished," Neri said. "We were very naive and didn't understand the political situation."

Lealman activists wonder where to go next. Raise the $25,000 for a feasibility study? Raise more and hire a lobbyist to push their message? Try again next year for a moratorium on annexations?

As for maintaining their borders, association members have a tentative meeting scheduled with the Pinellas Park Council for sometime in the new year. Annexation policies are scheduled to be the main issue.

Association leaders also have hinted they could change their approach entirely.

They could ask to merge with St. Petersburg or Pinellas Park, an idea broached earlier this year. It would seem unlikely since Lealman residents have said they want self-determination and to maintain community identity.

Or they could just let incorporation die.

Neri said that's not up to him.

"I don't think that's my decision," he said. "It was always the people's decision."

For Neri, Frank and others, as long as they have the support, they'll keep pushing for cityhood.

"We have a vision for the future in Lealman and we're trying to make that happen, but at every juncture, we meet a roadblock," Frank said. "There's another story to be told here. It's the story of the people of Lealman."

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