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Annexation foes gain new friend

(ran East, South, West, Seminole editions)

To block the piecemeal annexations of Lealman property by adjacent cities, a county commissioner wants to redraw the map.

"I think we need to act now to stop the bleeding in the Lealman Fire District until we have a comprehensive solution," Ken Welch said Tuesday. "We have tried to be patient. . . . We're just not getting the cooperation."

Welch asked that the Pinellas County Commission change the lines of the so-called annexation planning area so they match the boundaries of the Lealman Fire District. Then, annexations within those borders could occur only with the county's approval.

It's unclear when Welch's proposal would come up for a vote, although it could be as early as April 2.

His proposal was popular with many Lealman residents who want to protect their neighborhoods.

"The guy has stepped out on a limb for us," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, which is trying to form a city out of the Lealman area. "It's just the right thing to do.

"It's long overdue, but we just feel we need a respite from this annexation until we have a final determination of whether we can become incorporated."

Neri urged people to call or write the commissioners to support the change.

"We need to show them we're serious here, that we're watching," Neri said. "Don't just call one. Call them all."

Kenneth City Mayor Bill Smith said he opposed the move and had talked to Welch.

"I just wanted him to remember he represents Kenneth City also," Smith said. "As far as moving the borders and stopping the annexation, I'm totally against that."

Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler did not comment directly on Welch's proposal, but he denied that Pinellas Park was "aggressively" annexing into Lealman. The city only does voluntary annexations, he said.

"Our staff has been told not to aggressively annex in the south end of the city," Mischler said. "They've told me they haven't."

Annexation has been a hot issue for the past two years or so in Lealman, which has lost tax base to Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Seminole and Kenneth City.

Neri and others have complained that Seminole and Pinellas Park, in particular, have "cherry-picked" businesses. The tax money for those properties is diverted out of Lealman into the new city, but unincorporated residents left behind must pay more for the same services, particularly for fire and emergency aid.

The planning area boundaries were established two years ago by a countywide vote, but the ordinance allows the County Commission to change the lines.

Most affected by any change would be Pinellas Park, whose planning area extends south to 58th Avenue N, well into the fire district. Welch's suggestion would retract the southern border of Pinellas Park's annexation planning area to 62nd Avenue N.

Welch has asked his colleagues to move the lines before, but commissioners chose to wait until a group of elected and civic leaders met to discuss solutions to countywide issues such as annexation. Commissioners also asked that cities hold off on annexations until after the American Assembly meeting, which still has no firm date.

Pinellas Park rejected an invitation to join the American Assembly and has not participated in the voluntary moratorium on annexations. In fact, it accelerated one land grab.

That annexation, of Millbrooke Station Stables horse farm on 62nd Avenue N, split Lealman in two pieces.