INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Elected officials of the municipalities making up the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue district pressed forward January 5 at a meeting here with plans to excercise some oversight of the fire district.
This time, the officials, very dissatisfied over the past nine months or so with the direction given the district by its commission, were joined by county officials for the first time.
The upshot of the meeting is that a group with representation from each jurisdiction will be formed, a consulant and auditor will be hired and their findings presented to the Legislature for action.
According to Gay Lancaster, chief assistant county administrator, the cost would be about $50,000, which will be apportioned among the county and jurisdictions on a population basis.
That breakdown, according to Lancaster, who came to the meeting obviously prepared, goes like this -- county, 54.9 percent ($27,450), Indian Rocks Beach, 27.4 percent ($13,700), Indian Shores, 11.5 percent ($5,750), Belleair Beach, 5.8 percent ($2,900) and Belleair Shore, .4 percent ($200).
At the outset, Lancaster emphasized that the county has no jurisdiction of the PSF&R commission.
The county had been asked by the municipalties -- Belleair Shore, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores -- to conduct a review of the district's finances. The county declined, citing lack of jurisdiction.
At the meeting last Wednesday, Lancaster pointed out that the fire district is a creature of the Legislature and only the Legislature can exercise any superior control over it.
What brings the county into play, from the view of the municipal officials, is that a little more than half the population of the district, which extends into the unincorporated territory on the mainland, is county residents.
As is traditional, the county takes no responsibility for anything, and it was only the argument of a need for protection of county residents that got Pinellas officials involved.
With 51 percent of the district residents in the county and subject to being assessed by the fire district the county apparently has no complaints about the status of those people who are under the government of the county and otherwise unprotected.
Commissioner Karen Seel also showed up at the meeting and she was there most likely because of her consistent dedication to constituent issues.
City officials have been disgruntled because the fire district commission has not been forthcoming with information. State law requires the commission to give answers but this has been been the case.
Another complaint is that the commission has not complied with the public records law.
There are also charges that the district is operating outside of its lawful boundaries.
The dissatisfaction with the fire district was ignited last spring when the district commissioners talked of imposing an ad valorem tax.
Up until this year, the fire service fee for residents in Indian Shores, Indian Rocks Beach, the Oakhurst section of the mainland, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore was $120 annually.
The district sought a 58 percent increase and was granted this in a referendum in September, 2003, which brought the yearly fee to $190.
The ad valorem idea brought an explosion of outrage from political leaders in the cities and there were several meetings held by the fire commission that instead of developing solutions engendered bad feelings.
The fire district backed off the idea of sending the ad valorem tax proposal to a referendum and then came up with fee based on 17 cents a square foot of residences.
This went down soundly to defeat in the November election.
Litigation is still pending against the fire district.
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