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Tierra Verde fire district bill looks all but doomed

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A plan to give Tierra Verde residents a path toward creating an independent fire district will probably be dead on arrival in the 2016 Legislative Session despite being approved by the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation during a meeting at USF St. Pete Tuesday.

A bill sponsored by Representative Kathleen Peters and Senator Jack Latvala would allow residents in the upscale waterfront community to force a referendum asking voters whether or not to approve a new fire district by compiling petitions from ten percent of the total voters.

There are about 3,200 registered voters in Tierra Verde meaning just 320 would have to sign a petition to trigger the process.

At issue are two concerns – relying on outside fire services could pose potential safety problems should there ever be a problem with the bridge serving as the sole access to the island and receiving adequate reimbursement from the county for service calls to Fort Desoto.

About 25-30 percent of fire calls to Tierra Verde go to Fort Desoto. However, at one point the county was only reimbursing the town $1,000 out of a totally $500,000 cost for services paid for by property taxes. Clearly, no one lives on Fort Desoto, which is a county park.

Peters claims the move was prompted by concerns voiced by residents during five community forums she attended where more than 100 people were present at each. Her bill was largely supported in this year’s legislative session but failed to meet parliamentary procedures.

Now the bill is getting massive pushback from community members of the Tierra Verde Community Association who claim there hasn’t been enough discussion on the issue to move forward.

“There is no legitimate voter support of this bill,” said Mary Ann Renfrow.

In a heated exchanged that prompted an excited eruption for the audience, Renfrow claimed the ten percent petition threshold was far lower than other precedent claiming that most referendum petition requirements call for 50 percent of voters to sign on.

Latvala pressed Renfrow on what specific procedures she was referring to, but she wasn’t able to answer. Instead, she called on him as a veteran leader in Senate to do his own research.

Another resident, Karen Wise, accused Peters of not representing her constituents.

“I passed [the bill] along to many of my friends,” Wise said noting that none were in support. “There’s been no open forum, no discussion. You’re not representing the residents.”

Residents Matt Gaspar and Tom Eskridge echoed her sentiments.

“Stop spending money until we have [more] meetings,” Eskridge said.

He claims the association has already spent $150,000 educating residents about the bill and would likely have to spend another $150,000 if a referendum were forced.

The discussion was often heated on an issue that seems straightforward. Latvala questioned why residents would want to deny others’ opportunity to vote on an issue, reminding that the bill would not create a fire district in and of itself, but rather provide a less bureaucratic path to allow voters to decide.

“I can’t think of anything more representative than letting them vote,” Latvala said.

In the end, only two members of the local delegation voted against moving the bill forward – Democrats Dwight Dudley and Arthenia Joyner. But others voted in favor of the bill only to move the process forward.

In what appeared a plea to Tierra Verde residents to stay calm, Senator Jeff Brandes told the handful of speakers the bill would likely die a quick death once it got to a committee during the legislative session unless it somehow gained unanimous support.

“Local bills are the easiest to kill,” Brandes explained.

Representatives Chris Sprowls and Darryl Rouson also expressed concern about the ten percent threshold being too low.

Both lawmakers voted in favor of the bill in order to “continue the discussion.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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