CLEARWATER — After years of brutal budgets cuts, Pinellas County commissioners are in the almost pleasant position this year of deciding which additional needs to fund.
Property values came in higher than expected and turned a projected $4 million shortfall into a cushion of about $4 million. Comforted by that and other improving economic indicators, the board also decided to spend about $11 million in a rainy day fund to cover what they decided were critical needs in the 2014-2105 budget.
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard presented the $1.9 billion spending plan to the board on Tuesday. Here are some highlights.
No tax rate hike on the table
After two consecutive years of property tax rate hikes, the budget does not include a proposal to raise the general fund or unincorporated area tax rates.
The general fund rate, which is paid by property owners countywide, would remain at 5.2755 mills. That equates to $527.55 for an average homeowner whose property is valued at $100,000 with exemptions included.
The unincorporated area millage rate, paid by owners whose property is not in one of the county's 24 cities, would remain at 2.0857, adding $208.75 to the bill.
East Lake residents have a new tax on the horizon. Last month, the County Commission approved a taxing district to fund the East Lake Youth Sports Association. The proposed levy is a quarter-mill, which is 25 cents for every $1,000 of property value. The tax will apply to property owners who live in the East Lake Special Fire District.
More money for the sheriff
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri made a case for more money and commissioners decided to give him $10.7 million above the $235.6 million target the county had set. Gualtieri had asked for $15 million to address pay disparities among his employees and to replace aging patrol cars, radios and other technology.
Gualtieri said last week that he plans to put about $8 million toward pay increases, which he said will fix the problem for the agency's civilian employees, sergeants and lieutenants, and roughly half of the agency's deputies. An additional $1.6 million will cover the first year of lease payments on 152 new vehicles. Of those, 98 will be Chevy Tahoes used for patrol.
Raises for employees
For a second straight year, the budget includes 3 percent raises for full-time employees.
The pay increases for 2,178 workers will cost $3.5 million. Woodard said the goal is to keep the county competitive in the labor market.
Funding for needy, veterans stepped up
The budget includes line items meant to bolster services to some of the most vulnerable residents.
There is $500,000 to expand an indigent dental care program beyond the current "limited pain relief" model. Another $250,000 has been set aside for the public defender's jail diversion program for clients who need medical detoxification, housing and counseling to get sober.
The budget also includes an additional $150,000 for the beleaguered Veterans Services department.
Reasons for optimism
Woodard highlighted a few other encouraging signs that the county can shed the bunker mentality prompted by the recession.
Sales tax collections are on the rise. Building permit activity is increasing. Bed tax revenue and passenger counts at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport are setting records.
"We have been so inward-focused for the last five years or so, concerned with reductions in force and budget cuts … that at some point we may have lost our way and forgotten what's really important, and that is serving the public," Woodard said.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.