Pinellas County Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve a budget of about $1.69 billion that keeps service levels the same, but includes tax rate increases.
By a 4-3 vote, the board raised the countywide general tax rate by about 5 percent to pay for a Medicaid bill that had been passed down from the state. The commission also increased the tax rate that covers emergency medical services costs by nearly 8 percent, less than was initially proposed.
Despite high unemployment rates and another year of worsening property values, only six people came to the board's Tuesday night meeting to protest the changes. One of them was there to argue for fewer arrests for marijuana possession. Before the meeting, 39 people called or emailed to oppose the tax rate increases and five voiced some support.
Forty-nine minutes after it began, the meeting was over. Unlike last week's budget hearing in St. Petersburg, where the City Council voted to raise property taxes, there was almost no discussion or debate.
The measly public turnout took County Administrator Bob LaSala by surprise.
"I was expecting more civic participation than we received," he said, guessing that perhaps the note the county tucked into resident's Truth in Mileage notices, which blamed the Medicaid costs on Tallahassee lawmakers, accounted for the lack of opposition.
Another possibility, he said, is that Pinellas residents see things his way.
"Nobody likes to pay taxes, but there is a reasonableness in this county," he said. "People connect the dots between services delivered, the cost of doing business, and the funds we need to do that."
For several months, LaSala has argued for the necessity of raising the countywide tax rate to pay off a $11.4 million Medicaid bill next year. On Tuesday, the commission approved raising the rate from $4.81 per $1,000 of taxable value to $5.01.
For a home owner with a property valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption, this would mean paying $501, up from $481 the year before.
The remainder of the county's $13.9 million budget gap for 2013 will be closed with money pulled from reserves.
The board also passed a tax rate increase for emergency medical services costs. That rate will rise to 92 cents from 85 cents this year.
An earlier plan to raise the EMS rate by roughly 22 percent was killed after it became clear that it did not have the unanimous support it would have needed to pass. To make up for the difference in revenue, the county will take money from savings.
The overall budget for fiscal year 2013, which the commission approved on Tuesday, is slightly larger than its predecessor, owning to rising capital costs for construction.
But the portion of the budget that covers parks maintenance, health and human services, and other county services, is actually shrinking.
Commissioners Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield and Norm Roche voted against the tax rate increases for Medicaid and EMS.
Bostock said it was "ironic," the board had complained bitterly about the state Legislature handing down unpaid Medicaid bills to counties, yet was prepared to pass the cost on to residents.