Many Pinellas property owners could see higher tax bills

Some Pinellas residents may pay more even though their property values have fallen.

Mail carriers across Pinellas County likely incited dismay and dropped jaws this week as thousands of property owners learned that the county and some cities are proposing tax hikes.

The news arrived, as it does each August, in truth-in-millage notices that detail the tentative tax rates residents could pay if local governments approve them. The notices can be especially cringe-inducing for people whose tax rates are rising even as their property values continue to plummet.

Some 322,000 properties in Pinellas lost value last year, but only 229,000 of those owners will see lower tax bills, according to Property Appraiser Pam Dubov. That leaves almost 95,000 property owners caught in Florida's recapture rule. This occurs in declining housing markets when a property's taxable value increases even as the market value falls because increases were limited to 3 percent in boom years.

Based on estimates, about 194,000 Pinellas residents might have to pay higher taxes next year, Dubov said, figures that could change radically if the County Commission and various city councils ultimately reject proposed tax rate increases.

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala is proposing two tax hikes and appears close to shoring up enough support to pass both. One would raise the property tax rate by 7.7 percent to help close a hole in the county's beleaguered Emergency Medical Services fund. Another would raise the general fund tax rate by about 5 percent because officials say they need more revenue to begin paying off a Medicaid bill handed down from the state.

In an effort to convince residents (and would-be voters) that the County Commission has little choice but to raise these rates, the Republican-dominated board sent out a note blaming the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

The slim, blue note reads: "Due to an unexpected Medicaid expense that was pushed to local governments by the Governor and the Florida Legislature, the Board of County Commissioners is considering a millage increase."

It then goes on to assure residents that the Medicaid costs are not connected to President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

In St. Petersburg, the council voted 7-0 to increase the millage from 5.91 to 6.77 next year so the higher rates could appear on the TRIM notices. The increase would raise about $10 million.

But that proposed increase could drop once the City Council decides how to close a $10 million budget gap. Other options include a new fire readiness fee or dipping into reserves.

The council could eliminate the tax hike if the fire fee is adopted or use a mixture of all three options to balance the budget. The issue will not be resolved until public hearings occur on Sept. 13 and 27.

Either way, residents are likely to pay.

If the fire fee is implemented, property owners would pay between $65 and $75 for each parcel and 23 cents per $1,000 of the lot's appraised structural value.

For example, the owner of home assessed at $96,770 paid a total property tax bill of $2,128 in 2011. With a higher property tax rate in 2012, the bill would be $2,230.

The city's portion of that sum was $572.15 in 2011; the higher rate would make it $653.57 this year — an increase of $81.42.

The fire fee would cost that same homeowner $92.22 — a $10.80 difference.

The school tax rate is projected to decrease, but only slightly, from 8.38 to 8.30 mills.