For the second year in a row, Pinellas County has lost residents, even as Florida's population continues to rise. The slide was unusual for the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando all posted big gains. Pinellas dropped 5,456 residents to 917,437 last year, second to Broward County which lost 13,154, according to Census Bureau data released Thursday. The new population estimates drew mixed responses from Pinellas officials. Some brushed them off as inconclusive or insignificant.
But County Commissioner Susan Latvala, echoing statewide concerns about property insurance and taxes, interpreted the news as a dangerous trend in the rising cost of living in once-cheap Florida.
"Coastal counties have always been more expensive, but it wasn't that dramatic," she said. "It's a huge issue."
While the number of deaths in Pinellas have decreased over the past few years, they still outpaced the increases in births and net migration in 2007.
Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris was not overly concerned. He said the benefits of living in a coastal area will keep the population stable.
"Losing people is not as important as maintaining our quality of life," he said.
St. Petersburg senior city development administrator Rick Mussett said the estimates have to be broken down to their components.
"In general, our family sizes aren't getting bigger, but we are getting younger," Mussett said. "That's a good thing."
Pinellas County's decline is reflected in public school enrollment. After generations of growth, Pinellas schools hit a peak of 112,500 students in 2003.
Since then, enrollment has dropped by 6,000 students, the steepest decline in the district's 95-year history. Officials have responded by announcing the closing of three schools next year.
The situation is driving many decisions, including a plan to increase elective courses in Pinellas middle schools as a way to attract kids from private schools. With enrollment sliding, officials say they are trying to compensate by increasing the public school system's "market share."
Latvala said that's a big part of why she's concerned about the news.
"That's a sign of something going on," Latvala said, adding that property values have risen to the point of pricing people out of the area. "People start looking for other places to live."
While Pinellas and Broward counties lost the most residents, Monroe, which includes the Keys, lost residents at the greatest rate, 1.6 percent. Flagler County was the state's fastest growing at 7.2 percent and ranked in the top 10 in the country.
Overall, Florida grew about 1 percent, from 18,057,508 residents in 2006 to 18,251,243 in 2007.
Around the country, the fastest-growing areas were in the west and south, particularly in the New Orleans area where residents are returning in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
The census estimates are based on administrative records of deaths, births and migration.
Hillsborough's population grew by 1.1 percent, adding nearly 13,000 people. It outpaced the state and Florida's other most populated counties. But the rate was less than half the average annual growth during the boom years between 2001 and 2006.
A drop in building permits indicates this trend will continue, said Bob Hunter, the executive director of Hillsborough's Planning Commission. But while the economy might struggle, slower growth is an opportunity, he said.
"We should be comfortable with this pace," he said. "We're still growing. Maybe this will give us time to deal with the growth that has already been created by catching up with our roads.''
Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman, Demorris A. Lee, Michael Van Sickler and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.