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Noncity dwellers are united by complaints

(ran Beach, West, East, Seminole editions)

The meeting was billed as organizational, but participants were more interested in protesting proposed tax increases for unincorporated Pinellas than in talking about bylaws.

In fact, they formed a committee to study the proposed property tax increase and possible increase of the communications services tax. The committee is a first step in taking the protests to the Pinellas County Commission. The communications tax would be imposed on cable TV and the local portion of phone bills.

"We are for fair and equitable taxes," said Rod Fischer, who lives in an unincorporated area around Clearwater.

Fischer spoke for residents of unincorporated Pinellas who attended Saturday's meeting of the United Community Associations of Pinellas.

Although it was the first meeting of the group, more than 50 people representing themselves and various neighborhood and homeowner's associations attended. The associations were spread out from across Pinellas _ East Lake, Palm Harbor, Lealman, Clearwater, Seminole, Largo, Tierra Verde and Pasadena.

Although it was unclear how many residents they actually spoke for, it could number more than 10,000. Some of the association leaders said they represent areas with thousands of homes.

The aim of the group is to find common ground among folks from across unincorporated Pinellas to counterbalance the influence of cities on county officials. Finding a common interest proved easy Saturday. The prospect of higher taxes and increased cable and phone fees irked everyone.

County Administrator Steve Spratt recently suggested increasing the tax rate on property in the unincorporated area by 0.5 mills a year, or about $32.50 more each year on a home with an assessed value of $90,000 and a homestead exemption. A mill produces $1 in tax for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The increase in the communications services tax would raise the county's bite on cable and phone bills from 2.12 percent to 5.1 percent. The county estimates consumers will see a total increase of about $1.50 a month with an average cable bill of $30 and an average phone bill of $20. That works out to about $18 a year total.

The cities already impose such fees on their residents, ranging from 1.52 percent to 7.02 percent.

Spratt said the reason for the increase on property and communications taxes is twofold: To charge residents of unincorporated Pinellas for services, such as stormwater drainage, that have been incorrectly paid by the county at large and to provide more services, such as ball fields and other recreation.

United Community participants were unswayed by those arguments.

"We're just giving government a lot more money than they need," said Roger Gambert, a Palm Harbor resident. "I don't care what they're going to do with it. I don't care if they're going to bring another Mother Teresa."

Their concerns and questions were many:

n Increased taxes will help drive more people to annex into cities. That will mean the tax burden on those left in the county will have to increase even more.

"There's no sense in talking about taxation without talking about annexation," said the group's leader, Ray Neri of Lealman.

n Residents of the unincorporated area are doubly hit by county tax increases. During the past two years when the countywide tax has gone up, residents of unincorporated Pinellas saw their taxes increase. Now they're again facing the prospect of paying more taxes while city residents are not affected.

n They feel the county has been lax about offering services to the unincorporated area and it's unclear why residents should pay more for poor services.

n Palm Harbor residents created their own special taxing district to pay for recreation. They believe it's unfair to make them pay a countywide tax to subsidize recreation on top of that.

The county is saying "it might go for this (more recreation), but there's no guarantee," said Palm Harbor resident Scott Fisher, who is heading up the study committee. Fisher is also a UCAP organizer.

Fisher said some people in Palm Harbor are so upset over the proposed tax increase that they have begun seriously considering forming a city. If the cityhood movement goes further than talk, folks there will be following the lead of some Lealman activists who also want to form a city. The county is finishing up a feasibility study for the Lealman area.

n Cities have complained that residents of unincorporated Pinellas do not pay their fair share of taxes for services. United Community participants want to make the county thoroughly research that complaint before accepting it as true.

That's part of what the United Community is designed to do _ examine the county's budget and taxing structure. If the proposed tax increases appear to be unfair, then the group as a whole will protest to the County Commission.

The study committee is scheduled to meet later this week. It likely will bring its report back before the larger group early next month. That meeting, which will be open to the public, has not been scheduled.