In a sign of how unkind the last few years have been to Pinellas County's budget, when officials announced Tuesday that they are predicting a $12.1 million shortfall next year, it almost sounded like good news.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch.
With the economy projected to be on the rebound and property values trending up, county officials plan to drain a reserve fund that would account for all but $1.4 million of the general fund shortfall for fiscal year 2013-2014. The word county budget experts used for that figure is "manageable."
"We're not talking about another $15 million in cuts," Welch said.
The Emergency Medical Services budget is still in trouble. Four of the county's 10 funds are projected to be in the red for years. But without the threat of deep spending cuts on the horizon, commissioners talked about other areas of the budget that have taken a beating in recent years and could be due for some aid.
Raises may be in store for some county workers if the property appraiser's prediction proves correct and property values rise as much as 3 percent next year. County Administrator Bob LaSala's budget forecast gives commissioners the option of increasing county employees' salaries for the first time in four — in some cases, five — years.
"We've set aside some moneys for possible increases," LaSala said Tuesday, qualifying his comments with a reminder that the forecast is exactly that, an estimate.
LaSala has not said how large potential raises would be, but county officials worry that if they don't hike salaries soon, staff will leave for better-paying jobs. Some employees in the county's technology department have already quit for this reason, several commissioners said.
Asked to name their budget priorities for next year, commissioners agreed on the need for more employees working in code enforcement and animal services.
Welch said that recently, pit bulls attacked his campaign manager's dog. It was the third incident of its kind in his south Pinellas district in the past several months, he said. In at least one instance, the dog was killed.
"You really can't get a response. We don't have enough animal control officers," he said. "And you could say the same thing about our parks and with our roads."
Adding to the list of problem areas, Commissioner Karen Seel said that the county's stormwater management plan needs a fresh look, something that has not happened for decades.
"I've been out to lots of creeks and lots of lakes, and I see some monumental problems," she said.
Currently, the county pays about $3.1 million a year to manage runoff, mainly in unincorporated areas. For years, officials have discussed the possibility of charging residents a stormwater fee to cover this cost, as many Pinellas cities do.
Commissioner Norm Roche said he hoped to make veterans services a focus this year. Recently, some veteran groups accused the county of failing to fill vacant positions quickly enough, creating backlogs of disability claims.
And then there is a potential tax rate increase on the table to pay for rising EMS costs. Seel said it was likely "inevitable" the commission would have to raise the tax rate again to give them time to decide how to overhaul the system and lower its costs.
Commissioner Janet Long was less certain: "It's pretty obvious we just can't keep on doing that every single year," she said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.