St. Petersburg Times

Lealman area loses bid to keep fire taxes
Pinellas Park has the upper hand in the battle over an anti-annexation plan to preserve Lealman's tax base.
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published April 24, 2005

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LEALMAN - Pinellas Park has won the latest round in the annexation war over the unincorporated Lealman area.

With some help from that city's lobbyists, a bill died in committee that would have permanently protected the Lealman Fire District from tax losses caused by annexation.

"Clearly, this is the first shot across the bow from Pinellas Park of its intention to annex Lealman properties that could keep our taxes in reason," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association and an anti-annexation activist.

"It could destroy our ability to have our fire service by eroding our tax base to the point of not being financially feasible," Neri said. "Any city that would spend $50,000-plus of its taxpayers' money to go after its neighbors' properties . . . is downright disgusting."

Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell conceded the city did hire lobbyist Ron Book to watch out for the municipality's interests in Tallahassee. But that was not because of Lealman, he said. The decision to hire Book in 2003 for an annual cost of about $50,000 came at a time when the city wanted money to fix drainage along Park Boulevard.

That is one of the issues City Council members spoke with Book about. But annexation and the so-called Farkas bill were also high on their agenda when they gave him his marching orders.

The Farkas bill was named after state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, who introduced it in 2002. It was designed to help protect the Lealman area's tax base from further erosion by annexations.

Under the system in place before the Farkas bill took effect, the area's fire taxes went to the annexing city even if the Lealman Fire District remained the first responders for the property.

But as properties were annexed, the amount of money available for the Lealman Fire District decreased. To make up for lost revenue, taxes would have had to be increased. Firefighters feared for their jobs and residents complained about the high taxes.

The bill forced the annexing city to pay the fire tax to the Lealman Fire District for five years after annexation. Then the money goes to the city. The bill took effect Jan. 1, 2003 and automatically sunsets Jan. 1, 2008.

The bill that was defeated last week would have eliminated the sunset clause and made the Farkas bill permanent.

Pinellas Park officials were infuriated when the Farkas bill was passed, even though they say they have no intentions of annexing into the Lealman Fire District.

"It's a question of choice," Caddell said. "If a resident wants to annex his property into a city, he should be able to do that."

Neri countered that the Farkas bill does not stop annexation. It merely requires the city to help fund the fire department so adjustments can be made gradually.

It's more than that, Caddell said. If it is a matter of reducing taxes, the Farkas bill fails to do that.

"This bill is not the answer," Caddell said.

The goal, he said, is finding out what is best for residents, not what either the fire district or the city wants. What's best for residents is a high level of service at the lowest possible rates.

"Right now, that's not happening," Caddell said.

Although Pinellas Park can claim a victory now, the Farkas bill is still in effect. And Lealman has until 2007 to try persuading the Legislature to extend the Farkas bill or make it permanent.

That attempt is likely to happen, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said.

"We'll keep trying," Graham said.

[Last modified April 24, 2005, 01:02:20]