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Split the bill on hydrants

A fire at Town Apartments North in unincorporated Lealman has exposed a potentially deadly shortcoming in Pinellas County's public safety responsibilities. Firefighters at the June 21 blaze found their efforts hampered by a lack of nearby fire hydrants and low water pressure. Only early evacuation saved residents from serious injury.

Next time it could be worse. Large areas of Lealman have no hydrants close enough to fight a fire effectively, Times staff writer Anne Lindberg reported. An errant match could lead to loss of property and put lives at risk.

It's an intolerable situation that needs quick remedy, yet the immediate response from Pinellas County and St. Petersburg officials was to point at the other as the responsible party. Indeed, both have a role to play.

The county is a checkerboard of overlapping and inefficient service areas. In Lealman, St. Petersburg provides water, including the lines that supply fire hydrants, while the county provides most other services. Both governments played a role in neglecting economically depressed Lealman for decades, and both should make up for those slights.

Pinellas County commissioners are considering ordinances that would set a modern fire hydrant standard for Lealman and elsewhere (other areas have similar gaps), and a schedule to install new hydrants and supply lines. But county officials have said they expect St. Petersburg to pay for the work in Lealman, which could cost up to $2-million.

That's not how St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker sees it. "I believe the county needs to assume responsibility for what goes on in the unincorporated area," he said.

Such squabbling isn't new. Recently, the county and city have behaved more like the Hatfields and McCoys than interdependent governments, but petty feuds have no place in this matter.

St. Petersburg has an obligation to Lealman residents, who are charged a 25-percent premium for their water. Some of that money should go back into modernizing supply lines so that Lealman firefighters have enough water pressure when the need arises.

Pinellas County shouldn't be relieved of its duty to improve public safety, either. It should help with the cost of connecting new hydrants in Lealman. County Administrator Steve Spratt said Wednesday he was willing to recommend such a first step toward compromise. That solution makes sense.

The Lealman area is not prosperous enough to take on the expense itself. Admittedly, Lealman residents made an unfortunate choice three years ago when they got legislative help to create their own fire department. Now, they pay a tax rate for fire protection that is several times higher than in much wealthier Tierra Verde, for example.

Lealman isn't alone in such misguided provincialism, however. Pinellas County has 20 different fire departments, a mishmash of duplication that makes no sense. But that is a battle for another day.

There is a more immediate concern: to protect Lealman residents before a life is needlessly lost.