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Largo at odds with county over rec fees

(ran West, Beach, Seminole editions)

After hearing that Pinellas County lawyers may challenge them, Largo commissioners plan to wait until August to decide whether people who live in unincorporated Pinellas should pay higher recreation fees than other nonresidents.

At Tuesday's City Commission meeting, Commissioner Pat Burke said conversations with county commissioners gave her pause.

"They have some questions of what we're doing and some of their comments were legitimate," she said. "I would like us to go back and maybe review it."

The friction marks the latest rift between Largo and the county, which have been involved in a dispute over annexation boundaries.

Two weeks ago, county staff members said it was unusual that the city's proposed charges came a few months after the county had begun a program that reimburses people who live in unincorporated Pinellas and use municipal recreational facilities.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said they may have a point.

"It's unnecessarily unfair. If we want to increase the service fees, it should be across the board. It's an after-the-fact slap in the face," she said.

City Manager Steve Stanton said the city was the one being treated unfairly.

"When we do something, we are typically singled out as doing something for the wrong reasons," he said. "Even with what we're proposing to do, we're still cheaper than most of the cities around us."

Stanton said the problem is not really the membership fee. It's about who's going to pay for services that nonresidents are getting.

"The county should encourage people to annex to the municipality to receive services," Stanton said.

County staff members said the debate is about the city punishing people who live in unincorporated areas of the county with higher fees.

"I think the county's position on that is that you cannot differentiate that way, and now you have something from our County Attorney's Office that says just that," Mark Woodard, assistant county administrator, said.

On Thursday, county lawyers sent the city a copy of an internal letter that said Largo's three-tier system is in potential violation of constitutional equal protection clauses.

"There are legal limits. The county faces them. The city of Largo faces them. That's one of the protections that the Florida and the U.S. constitutions have," said Joe Morrissey, assistant county attorney.

But Stanton said the city has the right to set fees.

"I really think they're reaching by claiming that it's unconstitutional," Stanton said.

City Attorney Alan Zimmet was out of the office Thursday and did not offer a formal opinion. But at the meeting, he said, "Essentially a city can establish fees for services as long as those fees are reasonable."

Largo residents now pay $3.50 for an annual recreation membership card. All nonresidents pay $25 for annual membership cards and $15 for six-month cards. The three-tier system would charge people who live in unincorporated areas $75 for annual memberships or $40 for six-month memberships.

Both Commissioner Charlie Harper and Commissioner Gay Gentry defended the higher fees.

Harper said county residents should pay more because they have been "living on the backs" of city residents.

And Gentry said "the folks in unincorporated Pinellas would have an advantage" because they would pay less than someone coming from Seminole or Clearwater after they were reimbursed by the county.

_ Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorrisptimes.com.

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