Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas Suncoast fire board concludes contentious lawsuit in hope for fresh start

INDIAN SHORES — A battle over a lawsuit that racked up more than $100,000 in legal fees and soured the relationship between the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District and a group of residents came to an end last Wednesday when the fire board decided not to move forward with an appeal.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Lawrence Schear absent due to illness, concluded a lawsuit lodged by an Indian Rocks Beach commissioner and district resident claiming the wording of a referendum granting the district authority to collect a property tax was misleading. Last month, a circuit judge threw out the referendum when he sided with the residents, who were led by Edward Hoofnagle.

The district's new chief, Mike Burton, in his first public comments, recommended commissioners vote no on the appeal and start fresh with the community to work out solutions to the district's financial obstacles.

"I think the costs go beyond the fiscal cost of conservatively $40,000," he said of the appeal. "But the good will cost could be pretty high, and the public perception would not likely be favorable."

Former chief Sal D'Angelo, who aggressively pursued the referendum and other lawsuits that contributed to a high legal bill for the district over the past two years, resigned in August.

The outcome of the meeting, which drew resident applause, signaled a new era for the fire district and the community it serves, which includes Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore and the unincorporated Oakhurst area.

About 40 residents attended, many of whom had become meeting regulars in recent months. A dozen addressed commissioners, asking them not to move forward with the appeal, which board attorney Jeff Albinson estimated could cost $25,000 to $40,000.

The district spent about $253,900 on crafting, then defending the referendum, about $116,400 of that on legal fees for the lawsuit as of mid-September.

"That was $253,904 that could've gone for salaries, that could've gone for more equipment, that could've gone for improvements to the fire houses," said Indian Rocks Beach resident and commissioner Phil Wrobel. "Let's take care of this and do it as grownups working together, not as gamblers using our money."

In a rare moment of pre-vote discussion from the dais, Chairman Joe Bruni emphasized the board was taking advice from lawyers throughout the referendum process and during the other lawsuits. He conceded the amount spent has been "astronomical."

Bruni took it a step further by suggesting the district form a task force made up of citizens, community leaders, the fire chief, the board attorney and himself to craft referendum language through workshops that will appease all parties — an idea some residents had floated at meetings past.

"I would like to start over with the citizens, the taxpayers and this board to move forward," he said.

But amidst the fresh-start theme, Bruni emphasized the lack of the $1.5 million the property tax would have provided will likely lead to service cutbacks.

Notably, this year's budget still accounts for that revenue, meaning the district is operating on an unbalanced budget — a violation of Florida law. Finance director Dave Martin said he is working with Burton to edit the budget to account for the lost revenue, then will craft a budget amendment to reflect the changes.

"There will be no winners at this point from this," Bruni said. "The people that will suffer the most will be the firefighters … the taxpayers — it's up in the air. If the fire district can't sustain itself financially, we have to face tough decisions on whether we have to reduce the workforce or possibly close down a fire station."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

Pinellas Suncoast fire board concludes contentious lawsuit in hope for fresh start 10/12/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 4:03pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath

    K12

    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

  2. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.
  3. Study: Pollution kills 9 million a year, costs $4.6 trillion

    World

    NEW DELHI — Environmental pollution — from filthy air to contaminated water — is killing more people every year than all war and violence in the world. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

    New Delhi’s landmark India Gate, a war memorial, is engulfed in morning smog on Friday.
  4. Quarterback Jameis Winston will start Sunday for the Bucs

    Bucs

    TAMPA — Jameis Winston hadn't thrown in practice since he injured his right shoulder in Sunday's loss at Arizona, and with that uncertainty, a wide line of TV cameras and reporters' cellphones were all out Friday morning, recording the moment as Winston tested his shoulder with his first throws early in …

    Despite a sore shoulder, Jameis Winston will be making his 38th consecutive start since being drafted first overall in 2015.
  5. Paul Rodgers replacing ZZ Top on Ribfest 2017 lineup

    Blogs

    In looking to replace the ailing ZZ Top, Ribfest found some good company in Bad Company.

    Paul Rodgers