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A final certificate of occupancy was issued Jan. 9, but "soon" is the most anyone will say.
Published Jun. 27, 2007

The question was one residents of this unincorporated area have asked the past few months:

"When are they moving into the new fire station?"

"Soon" was the answer from Lealman Fire Commission member Julie Adams. But Adams had little more information to quench the curiosity of audience members at this month's Lealman Community Association meeting.

And curiosity there is. Association president Ray Neri said he has been asked that question, even by the mayor of Kenneth City. But it's not a question Neri can answer.

"We don't know, and they're not telling us," Neri said Friday.

Fire Chief Rick Graham refused to allow a Neighborhood Times reporter to accompany him and the contractor on a building walk-through earlier this month.

Graham told a firefighter to tell the reporter to call to set up a tour, but last week refused to do so, leaving a message saying, "The firehouse isn't open yet. (He will) let you know about a tour when it's ready."

But it's hard to know what isn't ready. The county issued a final certificate of occupancy a little more than five months ago, on Jan. 9. A certificate of occupancy means that all technical code issues have been resolved and all impact fees have been paid, said Jack Tipton of the Pinellas County Building Department.

It also means "they can move in that day," Tipton said. In fact, Tipton said, most people are so eager to move into new buildings that "usually we have found that people move in before the C.O. is issued.

"I cannot see any reason they cannot be in those buildings operating out of them, (but) we cannot make them move in."

Graham did not return messages asking for comment.

Other nearby governments said they have been quick to move into new buildings.

Seminole fire Chief Dan Graves said the department moved into Fire Station 29, the city's newest, even before the C.O. was issued.

Similarly, Pinellas Park officials moved into Park Station on Park Boulevard before that C.O. was granted. Park Station houses city offices, the local chamber of commerce, and historical and art societies.

Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson, a former contractor, said the city spent the next year arguing with the contractor about cosmetic issues but was able to conduct business in the building.

It's a fine line when deciding whether to move into a building when a C.O. is granted, Gustafson said. Once an owner takes possession and moves in, it can be difficult to determine who's at fault if something is wrong. Typically, he said, the owner withholds money from the contractor until all issues are settled.

Gustafson, who has been meeting with Graham to discuss annexation issues, offered a glimpse into possible reasons for the delay at moving into new Lealman Station 18. Graham, he said, has referred to tiling problems in the bathrooms.

If that's the case, Gustafson said, Graham is probably right to hold off on the move. But once those type of problems are settled, he said, there would seem to be no reason not to move in.

Tipton agreed that "cosmetic" issues like tiling and disputes with contractors could delay move-ins. But he said he's not aware of Lealman's situation so was unable to comment about that specifically.

Neri said if the fire district is having problems, then he, too, could understand why the move has not taken place.

But the district needs to be more forthcoming with the public about the progress of the station, he said. "They're not saying anything. Everyone is mum," Neri said. And the community, which is paying for the station with its taxes, has the right to know. "It's a big event for the community and it's our money that's going to be running it."