After the first of two budget hearings, Pinellas County commissioners voted Thursday to raise the general fund tax rate by about 5 percent next year, a decision that would allow the county to give employees raises for the first time in years.
Proposed months ago by Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, the plan to raise the tax rate, even while property values are expected to increase by more than 3 percent, has met with scarcely any opposition from commissioners. Only Commissioner Norm Roche dissented Thursday. From the start of budget discussions, a majority of the seven-member board has agreed that raises for county employees are overdue.
The board's move Thursday came after little discussion.
"We spent an entire year working toward this night," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "We've given input, changed recommendations — put a lot of effort into it."
The tax rate increase is also necessary, the commissioners have argued, to cover mounting costs passed down by lawmakers in Tallahassee. In the final moments of the last state legislative session, lawmakers voted to raise the rates employers must pay into Florida's pension fund, costing the state's 67 counties upward of $900 million. Pinellas' share comes to about $5 million.
In Pinellas, the average homeowner — whose property is valued at $100,000 with exemptions included — will end up paying about $27 more next year.
If approved, the rate increase would generate an additional $14.1 million — enough, county officials say, to ensure that 2015's expected budget gap can be filled without another tax hike.
The 2014 budget, which will come up for another public hearing on Sept. 17, totals $1.76 billion, a 2 percent increase over this year's budget. It would take effect Oct. 1.
Along with a general fund tax rate increase, which is paid by residents countywide, the budget includes slightly higher water and sewer rates, which have been ticking up for the last several years. According to county officials, the typical water and sewer customer will pay an extra dollar a month for water and another $2.01 per month for sewer.
Residents in unincorporated areas can expect to pay more next year into the county's library fund, a partial result of the commission's decision to allow East Lake residents to fund their library directly instead of paying into the countywide pool.
While East Lake residents will likely end up paying less, unincorporated residents will probably pay more. Their tax rate would rise so that the same homeowner whose property is valued at $100,000 would pay $50 in taxes instead of $44.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of next year's budget is getting its own public hearing Tuesday. To comply with federal water quality standards, county officials are proposing to charge unincorporated residents a stormwater fee based on how much of their land is not permeable. Owners of small homes — between 200 and 1,575 square feet — would pay about $70 a year. For a medium home — between 1,576 and 4,367 square feet — the fee would be about $116 per year.