CLEARWATER — Despite a falling unemployment rate and a fragile housing recovery, Pinellas County's economic outlook is not expected to greatly improve next year.
The county likely will face a roughly $4 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2015, in spite of the commission's decision to raise the tax rate last year. At the same time, officials predict the county's sales tax revenue will increase by 4 percent and property tax revenue by 3 percent.
For Pinellas, which until this year went through five consecutive years of declining property tax revenue, the prediction came as mixed news. Yes, the county will likely see increased revenues, but to little effect against rising costs.
Still, there are no plans to raise the tax rate again, said Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard. The $4 million estimated shortfall represents a small fraction of the county's overall budget and will likely be overcome through internal changes, he said.
"It's unreasonable to think we can keep on taxing and keep on taxing," said Commissioner Janet Long. "We have to find new and better ways to do the same thing."
Commissioners voted last year to raise the general fund tax rate, which is paid by property owners countywide, by 5 percent. The increase was expected to generate an additional $14 million, enough, officials said at the time, to plug budget gaps for two years while also giving raises to county and sheriff's office employees.
If there was a piece of good news in officials' routine update to commissioners on Tuesday, it was that Pinellas will likely not feel the full effect of the Biggert-Waters Act next year. Passed in 2012, the federal law was intended to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program's finances by eliminating subsidies, but the higher premiums are already affecting property sales in Pinellas, which in turn could damage the county's tax revenues.
Because new insurance rates went into effect last October and the county's tax base is determined by Jan. 1, there was only a limited window in which values could fall.
The full blow to revenues will probably come in the 2016 fiscal year, officials said.
Woodard said the county will have a clearer financial picture this summer, after Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov reports back with estimated home and property values. Commissioners will vote on a final 2015 budget on Sept. 23.
Another unknown in the budget forecast is how the county will find enough savings to close an estimated $3.4 million gap in its Emergency Medical Services' budget next year. Though county officials said they will likely be helped by a smaller-than-expected increase in ambulance costs, they have yet to get the 18 cities and fire districts that contract with the county to agree to a consultant's recommendation: reducing the hours of some first responders. Officials said they would present the commission with some ideas for balancing the budget on Feb. 4.