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IDEAS FLOW TO CONTINUE ANNEXATION INTO LEALMAN

A plan is expected this fall to finally resolve fire taxation and growth issues.

Annexation into the unincorporated Lealman area could resume under any of several ideas to resolve issues of city growth and fire taxation in mid Pinellas County.

One proposal would change the way fire service is delivered in Lealman and possibly pave the way to the elimination of the Lealman Fire Department. The county and/or cities would take over the service.

Another proposal could mean a new way fire taxes are collected across the county. The county would consolidate fire taxes in its unincorporated areas so all property owners would pay the same amount. That would help taxpayers in Lealman but would raise property taxes in other parts of unincorporated Pinellas.

Still another suggestion would allow cities to annex into Lealman, but Lealman would retain responsibility for fire service to the annexed property. The annexing city would pay the Lealman Fire District for providing first-response fire service. But the payment would likely be much lower than that paid by Lealman property owners.

Another idea would let unfettered annexation resume in the Lealman area.

The ideas were broached Monday during the meeting of a task force mandated by the state Legislature. The idea was to bring all parties together to try to reach an agreement that the Legislature could act upon next year. The task force is expected to give a recommendation to the Pinellas Legislative Delegation this fall.

Voting members of the committee include elected representatives from the County Commission, the Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg councils and the Lealman Fire Commission. Elected representatives from Seminole and Kenneth City are also members of the committee but have no vote.

Those cities were chosen because they border the Lealman Fire District and most of them have annexed into the area in the past and would like to be able to annex again. Attractive targets in Lealman include Joe's Creek Industrial Park and Northside Hospital and Heart Institute.

Those may not be the only ideas that the task force will consider. Jon Kieffer, the St. Petersburg attorney who is acting as the group's facilitator, plans to meet with each member of the task force. He said he plans to bring back ideas to the next meeting, which could be in the next two or three weeks.

"Eventually the goal is to come up with a recommendation that, hopefully, the entities will agree upon," Kieffer said.

Before the recommendation becomes final, it is likely the group will hold public hearings for Lealman-area residents.

Annexation has been a hot button issue for Lealman since Seminole annexed the tax-rich area on the western side of Park Street just north of Tyrone Boulevard. Among the businesses annexed were the Target store, a Sears and the site where a shopping center complete with a Kohl's is being built.

Around the same time, Pinellas Park was also annexing into the area south of 62nd Avenue.

Those annexations, which took place over a two-year period, reduced the fire district's tax base by about $85-million, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham told the task force members. That equated to about $2.3-million in lost tax revenue to the district.

Despite the loss in tax revenue, Lealman was not able to reduce the size of its department because the fire department still had responsibility for first-response service into much of the annexed area. The result was that Lealman's residents, who are some of the poorest people in the county, ended up paying the highest fire taxes in Pinellas.

The county tried to help by eliminating voluntary annexation into the Lealman area. Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Seminole, Largo and Kenneth City sued the county. That case is still in the courts, and a ruling could be handed down this fall..

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