Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

More cities and counties turn to tax increases to bridge budget shortfalls

As cities and counties throughout the Tampa Bay area face another year of budget shortfalls, many are beginning to find that the risk of cutting deeper into budgets and services, eliminating police officers and park space, is too great.

Instead, some are proposing the politically dangerous option of raising property taxes during an election year.

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala is the latest.

On Tuesday, LaSala will recommend that county commissioners raise the general fund tax rate by 5.1 percent, which would generate enough revenue to pay for an unanticipated Medi­caid bill of $12.2 million from the state. He also is proposing a separate tax hike to cover increasing emergency medical service costs.

Short $24.1 million for next year's budget, LaSala said he concluded that further spending cuts would do untold harm to public safety and other services.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Bill Foster has called for a new fire fee on property owners to bridge a $10 million shortfall next year in lieu of more cuts. In Pasco County, commissioners tentatively have agreed to raise the tax rate to compensate for declining property values. And in Hillsborough, where officials pride themselves on having reduced the overall tax rate during the past two decades, County Administrator Mike Merrill has proposed both a tax cut and the option of asking voters in November if they would support a slight tax rate increase to pay for new parks.

"Maybe it's getting to the point where the citizens realize we've kind of gone far enough," said Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher. "The pendulum may have swung far enough to the cost-cutting side."

That is not the case in Tampa, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn said closing his city's $26.7 million shortfall next year is "largely going to be about cutting."

With no boost from new revenue, the city is looking at a variety of options, including shrinking department budgets by 5 percent, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and pushing out debt and delaying purchases.

"I'm still committed to doing this without raising taxes and, to the extent possible, no layoffs," Buckhorn said. "I'm trying to find it internally."

Clearwater officials also are trying to keep property taxes flat next year. To plug a projected deficit caused by plummeting property values, city leaders are drawing on $1.6 million from their rainy day fund. Expansive changes to city pensions, which could save the city $4.5 million in the first year, will go to voters in November, and officials are counting on the referendum's approval to help with future spending.

Wanting to avoid further cuts in personnel and service, Brooksville city officials voted last week to implement a new fire assessment to offset an estimated $600,000 shortfall in property tax revenue.

The new fees will raise about half of the city's fire budget and go a long way toward avoiding the need to raise the millage rate.

"It's more fair to have everyone pay toward providing a service that everyone benefits from than to have only a few pay for it," said Brooksville Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn.

In Pinellas, where years of cuts have reduced the county's staff to its lowest level since 1985 and slashed some departments' budgets, LaSala said Thursday that raising the tax rate was the only practical step left, unless commissioners were willing to eliminate more services.

In a draft budget message, Chief Assistant Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard put the situation in grim terms.

"Every organization has a tipping point; a point beyond which the organization is irreparably damaged," he wrote. "I believe we are at that point."

LaSala's proposal would raise the general fund tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. The average Pinellas homeowner, whose property is worth about $103,000, would pay roughly $25 more, with no exemptions, he said.

To cover the remaining $11.9 million shortfall, LaSala is proposing to tap the county's reserve fund.

How much support he can expect from the county's seven commissioners is unclear. At a meeting in May, three of the commissioners supported the idea, two opposed it, one refused to take a position, and one was absent.

Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who opposed the tax increase then, said she still holds that position.

"A lot of the commissioners were very indignant," she said of the state's decision to change Medicaid funding, which will cost Pinellas County about $68.9 million over the next 10 years. "And I agree, but then we turn around and do the same darn thing to our citizens? We need to figure out how to fund it within our budget."

Times staff writers Richard Danielson, Drew Harwell, Lee Logan, Bill Varian, Logan Neill and Mark Puente contributed to this report.

More cities and counties turn to tax increases to bridge budget shortfalls 07/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 5, 2012 11:08pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Kentucky recruit, former Tampa Catholic star Kevin Knox among top prospects for 2018 NBA Draft


    Less than 24 hours after the NBA Draft, analysts have already begun looking ahead to 2018.

    Tampa Catholic star Kevin Knox finishes a layup during the McDonald's All-American game in March at the United Center in Chicago. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  2. Editorial: Pinellas cannot ignore homeless families


    They are living on our streets and in our parking lots, in cheap motels and spare bedrooms if they're lucky and in old cars if they are not. Their kids attend our schools, and parents often are afraid to seek help. Pinellas County has made progress in recent years in providing temporary shelter for the homeless, but …

Ariana Turner, 22, and her daughter, Namine Cowell, 2, are living at St. Petersburg Free Clinic Family Residence after falling on hard times. Pinellas County has made progress in recent years in providing temporary shelter for the homeless, but homeless families with kids are virtually shut out. It's a crisis that requires public and private leadership to find an answer that is both compassionate and cost-effective.
  3. Report: USF faculty complained of a hostile, sexist, boorish boss


    TAMPA — A certain University of South Florida academic may be an unpopular and insensitive bully, but he did not break USF rules, a lengthy legal review has concluded.

    Herb Maschner was removed last fall as the head of a technology center at the University of South Florida after the school learned his previous employer found he engaged in inappropriate, on-campus sexual behavior. A new report looks at Maschner's tenure at USF. [Idaho State University]
  4. Oh, deer! Two bucks seen on video duking it out in Tennessee


    Deer generally are seen as calm and serene creatures, but that was not the case in this video posted Wednesday on the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's Facebook page.

    A video, shot by Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency wildlife officers Amy and Bubba Spencer on one of their trail cameras, shows two bucks on their hind legs and flailing in an open field. [Facebook]

  5. Pedestrian dies after being struck by vehicle near USF Tampa campus


    A pedestrian was killed near the University of South Florida Tampa campus on Friday after he was struck by a car on Fletcher Avenue, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.