A split County Commission has tentatively approved a nearly 46 percent increase in property taxes to pay for emergency medical services next year.
The proposal would take the EMS tax rate from $0.5832 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $0.8506 per $1,000 of taxable value, increasing taxes by 45.8 percent.
A property owner with a home valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would see EMS taxes rise from $58.32 per year to $85.06. The new rate is scheduled for final approval on Sept. 15.
Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Norm Roche voted against the increase. The other five voted in favor.
Property tax covers only part of the roughly $103.4 million EMS budget. The rest is paid by ambulance user fees.
The tax pays most of the costs of the cities and fire districts that provide firefighter-paramedics who are first on the scene when someone needs medical help. Most of the remainder goes to Paramedics Plus, the private company that runs the Sunstar ambulance service, as well as savings, administrative costs and a contract with a company that provides a medical director to oversee the system.
The tax increase comes a year after the county raised ambulance fees to help stop the bleeding from a fund that Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala says is facing bankruptcy by 2013. The increase also comes a year before the likely implementation of a proposal to cut the amount of money many of the fire districts and cities are paid to provide EMS service and to change the way the county pays all of those agencies.
The projected deficit of $13.2 million in 2012 and $14.7 million in 2013 is caused in part by declining property values. The commission has funded deficits for the past couple of years by using savings.
LaSala said both the funding change and the tax increase are needed to prevent an EMS budget meltdown. Neither alone would be enough, he said.
Commissioners were unhappy with the prospect of a 46 percent tax increase, even combined with LaSala's plan to cut costs.
"It's a great start, but to leave us with a 46 percent tax increase, (LaSala's plan) is not enough," Bostock said. Bostock suggested cutting the proposed tax hike in half, but was unable to get support.
She, and other commissioners, warned LaSala they would not support such a large tax hike again.
"It's a hard vote, but we're just not going to do this again," John Morroni said.
Roche said he could not support any increase that was tied to the adoption of LaSala's plan. It is unclear, he said, if the board is going to adopt the proposal. And, if it is adopted, it's unclear that it could really go into effect Oct. 1, 2012, as proposed, because state law requires that the county provide the cities and districts with a certain level of funding. LaSala's plan could come in under that, which could prompt lawsuits. That would at least delay implementation and could derail it.
The county plans to ask the Pinellas County legislative delegation to change state law to let LaSala's plan go forward without a threat of a lawsuit. But it was unclear if the delegation will do so.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.