CLEARWATER — After hearing from the public, the City Council is tentatively planning to raise Clearwater's property tax rates. However, council members say it's not a tax increase because most property owners will pay lower taxes since property values have dropped so dramatically.
In other developments, the North Greenwood Library is still slated to be closed, even though a dozen people spoke at City Hall on Thursday night asking the council to spare it. Also, council members are considering suing Pinellas County because the county will no longer fund a second rescue unit at the Countryside Fire Station.
All in all, city leaders are making some unpleasant and unpopular choices to balance Clearwater's budget in harsh economic times.
After much discussion Thursday night, council members went with City Manager Bill Horne's recommendation and set a tentative tax rate of 5.15 mills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. They won't vote on a final tax rate until they hear more from the public between now and September.
"This is just the beginning of this trip that we're going to take between now and Sept. 17," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, who has argued against a tax rate increase. "This is just a starting point. We will make changes, I am certain, between now and then."
Horne's proposed budget eliminates 86 city jobs, freezes wages and closes the North Greenwood Library, the Morningside Recreation Center and the Harborview Center.
The tentative tax rate of 5.15 mills is 9 percent higher than the city's current rate of 4.72 mills. But it's 7 percent lower than the "rollback rate" of 5.55 mills, which is the tax rate that Clearwater would need to raise the same amount of revenue as the current year.
Because Clearwater's property values have fallen 13 percent in a year, the city will get less revenue even with a higher tax rate.
Council member John Doran noted that Clearwater collected $43 million in property taxes this year. Next year it would collect $41 million under the new millage rate.
"Forty-three is more than 41 any way you do the math," Doran said. "I don't understand how having less tax revenue is a tax increase. It might be a millage increase, but it's not a tax increase."
The council asked budget director Tina Wilson what the new tax rate would mean for most homeowners.
The owner of a homesteaded property with a taxable value of $200,000 would pay $87 more a year, Wilson said. The owner of a nonhomesteaded property of the same value would pay an average of $46 less. About two-thirds of Clearwater properties are non-homesteaded.
At Thursday night's meeting, two people showed up to ask council members to lower taxes. A dozen others asked them to keep the North Greenwood Library open and to raise the tax rate a bit if necessary.
"Now more than ever, we need libraries," said former Mayor Rita Garvey.
Leaders of Clearwater's police and firefighters unions also asked them not to slash taxes.
As for the North Greenwood Library, Horne plans to close it and move part of its collection and its computers across the street to the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex. Keeping it open would cost $120,000, and the council would have to cut that money somewhere else in the budget.
Council members also responded to criticism that Clearwater has too many employees with too-generous benefits.
Council members George Cretekos noted that 10 years ago, the city had 1,150 employees and a 5.5 millage rate, and now it will have 1,084 employees and a 5.15 millage rate. To keep the tax rate the same as it was this year, the city would have to cut another $3 million in spending, he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.