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Seminole: Annexation rules are fine as is

(ran East, West, Beach, Seminole editions)

City officials are willing to keep an open mind, but they really don't like any of the proposed changes to the county's annexation rules.

A lengthy discussion during Tuesday night's workshop turned into a sharp critique of Pinellas County officials' efforts to slow down or restrict annexations of unincorporated areas by cities.

The issue was sparked by a letter to the county from Pinellas Park warning that it would sue the county if it tried to change the annexation rules, particularly those affecting the largely unincorporated Lealman area. The county proposals would make it harder for cities to annex bordering properties.

"I am concerned about the Lealman issue," said Mayor Dottie Reeder. "We wouldn't want a precedent set."

What Reeder wanted _ and got _ was a consensus from the rest of the council that they like the way annexations are handled now.

She is particularly concerned about a proposed state law that would prevent cities from collecting fire taxes for five years after annexing a property. The county or an independent fire district would retain the taxes during that period.

But Reeder especially didn't like a county proposal that would limit how much a property would have to abut Seminole before it could be annexed into the city.

"Contiguous is contiguous, whether it's 1 inch or 10 feet," Reeder said. "This is a hot topic."

Pinellas County wants 18 percent of an unincorporated property's boundaries to be contiguous to a city boundary before it could be voluntarily annexed into that city. The Pinellas Planning Council is considering the proposal.

"Any change proposed from the county is an effort on their part to better define what they want us to be," said council member Bob Matthews. "The changes only serve to benefit one government _ the county."

Council member Pete Bergstrom, who also is on the Pinellas Planning Council, urged Seminole to wait and see what the final annexation proposals involve before taking any action.

Council member John Counts acknowledged a reality: "I don't know of any municipality that would want it more restrictive."

Seminole was unsuccessful last year in annexing 10,000 residents, about 1,500 acres and $335-million in taxable value to the city. A referendum vigorously opposed by a group of residents was defeated at the polls. Since then Seminole has annexed only properties that have voluntarily sought to join the city.

In other action Tuesday, the commission approved six charter amendments that will appear on the March 8 election ballot. If approved, council members would serve three-year terms instead of two, beginning after the 2006 election.

To ease the transition, in both 2006 and 2007 two council members would be elected to three-year terms. The lowest vote-getter among the winning candidates in 2006 would serve two years, and the similar candidate in 2007 would serve one year. In 2008, all council seats would become three-year spots. The mayor's three-year term would remain unchanged.

The other proposed changes:

+ In the absence and/or disability of both the mayor and vice mayor, the most senior council member would act as mayor.

+ All council meetings will be open to the public, except as provided by Florida law. Meetings exempt from the Sunshine Law include lawsuit-related attorney conferences and collective bargaining.

+ The city manager will keep an administrative code that implements ordinances and resolutions passed by the City Council.

+ Regular city elections will be held on the second Tuesday of March, with runoff elections held within 45 days of that date.

+ Make "every effort" to retain at least one former Charter Committee member when the committee is re-established every five years.

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