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Pinellas' Juvenile Welfare Board weighs raising tax rate

PINELLAS PARK — A board that oversees spending for children's services appears poised to increase the property tax rate, a move designed to save two popular programs for at-risk youth.

The current estimate for the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board's 2008-09 budget is $62.6-million, most of which comes from property taxes.

Although the idea of raising the tax rate appears to contradict voters' wishes to lower taxes, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Juvenile Welfare Board member, said he believes taxpayer anger does not extend to schools and children's programs.

"I think the community looks at children's services differently than they do government services," Welch said last week. "I just view children's services differently."

The Juvenile Welfare Board will have four options to consider:

• Leave the millage at its current rate of 0.734 mills, which would bring in an estimated $52.3-million in property taxes, or about $4.9-million less than the millage used this fiscal year.

The tax rate would bring in less money for the '08-09 fiscal year because of the decrease in property values and the effect of Amendment 1, which increased the homestead exemption.

• Adjust for the lowered property values. That would mean the tax rate would increase to 0.7609 mills. That would bring in about $53.8-million in property taxes, which would still be about $3.3-million less than the agency says it needs to fund all programs.

• Take the millage up to 0.7928, thereby raising an estimated $56.1-mllion in property taxes, still about $1-million short of the funds needed.

• Increase the rate to 0.8197 mills, which would raise an estimated $58-million in property taxes.

A home assessed at $150,000, with the $50,000 homestead exemption, would draw a bill of about $73.40 if the millage remains the same. That would increase to $76.09 if option two were adopted. It would go up to $79.28 with option three, and up to $81.97 for the fourth option.

Board members likely will come to a conclusion at a workshop tonight but will not vote until their July meeting. The workshop will follow a public hearing scheduled at 5:30 p.m. at the agency's headquarters, 6698 68th Ave. N.

In the end, Welch said, the choice is whether to pay for programs to help kids before they get into trouble or pay a lot more to house them in juvenile facilities and try to remedy problems once they arise.

At a May public hearing, child advocates flooded board members with petitions and pleas to raise property taxes before cutting programs. Many of the advocates were especially concerned about two programs that are geared toward teaching better coping skills to prevent violence in schools and elsewhere.

Welch, like many parents and child advocates, sees benefits in those: "Programs like Peacemakers and the antiviolence program make a big impact on a child's success in school and a teacher's ability to teach."

Other programs threatened include 211, a hotline that helps steer people to the appropriate service. The issue there, Welch said, is that 211 seems to have no direct impact on individual children. However, Welch said he sees value in 211 because it helps kids and their parents find the help that's out there.

Even if the board decided to fully fund the proposed budget, some programs would still see reductions in funding as the Juvenile Welfare Board struggles to cope with the effect of Amendment 1 and the housing market plunge.

Lisa Sahulka, the Juvenile Welfare Board's director of contract management, finance and research, said she does foresee the board doing something to restore funding to some of the programs. But even so, she said, "There will still be children who will definitely lose service."

Pinellas' Juvenile Welfare Board weighs raising tax rate 06/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 5:05pm]
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