Pinellas County's tax base will dip again, taking money for government services with it.
Property Appraiser Pam Dubov estimates the county's tax roll will drop 5 to 8 percent, triggering a $21 million shortfall for 2012 in the county budget.
Though less than last year's 10 percent drop, the shrinking tax roll still will sap the source of funding for the Sheriff's Office, parks and other county services, making for a fifth straight year of cuts.
"We are still in a free fall. I know that sounds drastic, but since we don't yet see bottom, that's what it is," County Administrator Bob LaSala said Monday during a planning session among top county officials.
The falling tax base also will cause a $16 million shortfall in the county's emergency medical services budget, according to a forecast to be given at today's County Commission meeting.
For county services, there is a cushion. Through spending cuts, Pinellas expects to have saved $4.4 million more than planned. That's in addition to $19.3 million set aside to ease budget cuts.
That money could cover the shortfall for the annual budget that begins in October. But Pinellas still faces a $9 million shortfall projected in 2013.
Although some economic signs are looking up, the lagging nature of property value assessments and payments will delay any improvement in county government finances, LaSala said.
"We're actually looking at the things we could stop doing — rather than doing it poorly," commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said.
Among the county's options will be raising taxes and fees — possibly weighing park entrance and parking fees rejected last year — and cutting services further.
Already, LaSala plans to combine the public works and utilities departments, likely leading to layoffs. That's after plans to seek 6 percent increases to water rates.
The $486 million general fund is about a quarter of the overall budget, which is $1.6 billion.
Some commissioners want to press other countywide elected officials to make a deeper share of cuts. Last year, they didn't meet 15 percent spending cut targeted by the commission. Led by the Sheriff's Office, they make up more than half the general fund.
But that focus obscures the fact they didn't grow as much and have state-mandated duties, said Dubov and Clerk of Courts Ken Burke.
"We didn't appreciate it when we felt like we were thrown under the bus in some conversations last year," Burke said.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.