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How much will Pinellas taxpayers pay to protect kids?

Pinellas County voters seem to have spoken firmly in favor of lower property taxes by overwhelmingly approving Amendment 1.

But Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board hopes taxpayers will see endangered children as reason enough to relinquish some of those tax savings.

The JWB is the local government body specifically charged with paying for programs and services to protect children at risk. Almost all of its money for programs comes from property taxes.

Now the board is looking at a $6.3-million property tax shortfall for the budget year beginning in October. Preliminary estimates released Tuesday suggest that the taxable value of property countywide will drop 8 percent next year. That means the same property tax rate will raise less revenue for local governments.

JWB officials say reducing their nearly $51-million budget by $6.3-million would force them to cut services to 9,700 children countywide.

So JWB board members — who include judicial and elected officials — are considering raising the board's millage rate as a way to save some programs.

At least some JWB board members think showing people the value of the programs in danger may convince them that higher property taxes are needed.

To that end, the JWB board is discussing holding a special meeting on April 29 to hear the public's view on a higher millage rate. The board will decide whether to increase it when it sets its budget in July.

Pinellas County Commissioner and JWB board member Kenneth Welch noted that on Jan. 29, the same day Floridians passed Amendment 1, Pinellas voters renewed a special school property tax to help pay teachers better.

"We think the public might say these are the same kind of programs," said Welch, who chairs JWB's budget committee. "It will be a very small millage rollup."

•••

When the $6.3-million shortfall began looming, JWB officials identified $3.4-million in potential cuts to 11 programs. Some rely solely on the funding from the Juvenile Welfare Board, so without funding they would essentially disappear.

The board also said it would consider $1-million in cuts to programs in each of three categories: school-related services, child-care slots and youth development.

The areas in danger of losing funding include mental health for emotionally disturbed boys, help for homeless families and violence prevention programs.

One nonprofit agency that could lose funding is Carlton Manor Therapeutic Group Home — with two sites in St. Petersburg — which each year treats about 40 severely emotionally disturbed boys ages 6 to 16.

The older boys sometimes face incarceration or live in foster care or with extended family.

"This cut, with other cuts (from other government agencies), it could hit us much harder," said Paul Buxbaum, the therapeutic homes' executive director. "We could have to close these doors."

Public Defender and JWB board member Bob Dillinger said he would prefer if no programs were cut.

But he said two he especially would regret eliminating are Detention Coordination Services — run by Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health — and Behavioral Evaluation.

The first works with families to reduce recidivism among young people after their first arrest.

The second includes three child psychologists, all with doctorate degrees, who help juvenile judges evaluate the social, emotional, behavioral and other needs of young people.

"They are absolutely essential to the work of a juvenile judges," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge and JWB board member Irene Sullivan.

It is, she added, "the only program in the state like that and (is) the envy of all the other juvenile judges in the state of Florida."

•••

Among taxing authorities in Pinellas, JWB has one of the smallest millage rates.

Its rate is 0.7384 mills, or about 74 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value.

Like other governments, the agency expects to lose revenue for two reasons. First, Amendment 1 expands the homestead exemption for local government taxes, but not school taxes. Second, the collapse of the real estate market is driving down property values.

To recover some of the expected losses, JWB staff is preparing different scenarios for six millage increases.

Each scenario would allow the agency to reclaim increasing amounts of the $6.3-million and cut fewer programs.

"It could be as little as $2 a household," JWB executive director Gay Lancaster said.

Still, the JWB is only one government body with the authority to levy taxes. Who's to say that if it raises its millage, other cities and the county wouldn't follow suit?

"If I was sitting there at my home and had a fixed income, I'd be saying, 'If you raise it, what if someone else does, too?' " Lancaster said. "That's the balancing piece."

Still, JWB members hope members of the public will recognize the value of child services. Dillinger also pointed to the tax for teacher salaries that voters agreed to renew.

"It's a rather discerning public," he said. "I don't know if they really want to penalize 9,700 children. But we need to know it because it's their money."

The time and place for the April 29 special meeting have yet to be set. And at least one JWB board member is skeptical that residents will agree to a higher tax rate.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney and JWB board member Bernie McCabe said any program facing a cut usually is a good program, but he added that fiscal woes have been a reality for two years.

He said he did not know whether increasing the millage is the proper solution. "I'm not too sure that taxpayers would be too interested in that," McCabe said.

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Six scenarios

Juvenile Welfare Board officials estimate that if they raise their millage rate, they could save some programs at risk. Here's a look at six potential millage rates, and how much of the JWB's existing budget each would preserve:

• 0.7505 mills$832,795

• 0.7525 mills$969,335

• 0.7673 mills$1.96-million

• 0.7821 mills$3-million

• 0.7968 mills$4-million

• 0.8321 mills$6.44-million

How much will Pinellas taxpayers pay to protect kids? 04/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 11:47am]
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