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Projected budget shortfall could mean raised taxes, service cuts for Pinellas

By Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer

Pinellas property owners could be looking at higher taxes or reduced services to offset a projected shortfall in the county's operating budget, according to the latest estimates.

The new predictions indicate the county's general fund will face an estimated $11.9 million shortfall in the 2012-13 fiscal year and a further $10.7 million deficit the next year. The fund — which currently contains about $556 million — is now expected to have a long-term shortage of $22 million to $37 million.

The bad news came at Tuesday's County Commission meeting when County Administrator Bob LaSala walked commissioners through his updated forecasts for 10 funds in the budget.

LaSala said he sees potential shortages in four of those: the general fund, which pays for day-to-day expenses of the county; the transportation fund, which is used to maintain the county's roads and related infrastructure; the emergency management system fund; and the funds that provide fire service for certain parts of the unincorporated area.

The shortfalls are, in part, a result of declining property values that have not rebounded as quickly as LaSala originally predicted. In his last projections, LaSala estimated that property values and the tax revenues from them would dip about 3 percent in the next fiscal year and then, in the 2013-14 fiscal year, would rebound by 4 percent.

But in these newest projections, LaSala said the county is expecting a 4 percent drop in property tax revenue next year and a 2 percent decline the following year.

That's really bad news for the general fund, which gets about two-thirds of its total revenue from property taxes. The remainder is derived from revenue sources such as sales taxes and other fees.

Given that information, LaSala told commissioners at the Tuesday meeting that the current levels of service are not sustainable. The commission, he said, will likely have to increase taxes or cut more services.

Then, on Thursday, LaSala referred to the anticipated fiscal woes while speaking to members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

The challenge, he said, is to "right-size this ship so it will be sustainable and viable, dependable and predictable (and) to build a dependable, reliable and predictable level of service."

The commission, he said, has already cut spending. That included the elimination of about 1,600 positions with the county government. The property tax has been reduced by about 35 percent and revenues by about 30 percent.

"Those are no small variations in the county budget," LaSala said.

Reach Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.