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Pinellas commissioners pass budget with tax increase

Pinellas County commissioners approved the 2013-14 budget Tuesday night, agreeing to increase tax rates in a year when property values are expected to go up. Here are some of the decisions they made:

Tax rates are going up: For the second time in two years, the commission raised the general fund tax rate, which is paid by property owners countywide. Effective Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, the tax rate will increase by about 5 percent. That is expected to generate $14 million.

For an average homeowner whose property is valued at $100,000 with exemptions included, it will mean paying an additional $26.50 next year.

Water and sewer rates are also scheduled to increase. The typical water and sewer customer will pay an extra dollar a month for water and another $2.01 a month for sewer.

These rate increases come at the same time that property values are expected to increase by roughly 3 percent. Though buffered by the Save Our Homes law, which caps how much some property owners' taxes can increase from year to year, many Pinellas County residents will see a larger tax bill.

County employees are getting raises: After going at least five years without granting a pay increase, the commission has signed off on a 2.8 percent raise this year. Giving employees a raise was one of the central arguments made by County Administrator Bob LaSala for raising the general fund tax rate.

Without it, he told the board, Pinellas could fall in competitiveness to other municipalities that offer higher pay. The county has already struggled to keep employees with IT skills.

Offering his employees an even better deal, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has built 4 percent raises into his budget for next year, which is wrapped into the overall budget that commissioners approved on Tuesday. He is also adding 57 positions to his agency next year. Almost all of them are being paid for through contracts for managing law enforcement for St. Pete Beach and for taking over misdemeanor probation from the Salvation Army.

In unincorporated areas: Residents of unincorporated areas of the county will, for the first time, be required to pay a stormwater fee next year.

Fifteen cities in Pinellas already charge residents a stormwater fee. For unincorporated residents, it will be based on how much of their property is considered nonpermeable, such as homes and driveways. Ninety-percent of residents will pay either $70 a year or $116, depending on whether officials categorize their homes as small or medium.

Commissioners also voted to raise the tax that unincorporated residents pay to support the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, 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.

Spending is up, slightly: The budget for 2013-14 comes to $1.76 billion, a 2 percent increase over last year. Some of that is due to employee raises, but some comes from a law passed by state legislators last spring that forced counties to pay more into Florida's pension fund. That added about $5 million to the county's pension obligations.

Though county officials expect this year's tax increase will cover any deficit in 2015, they are less sure about 2016 and beyond. More tax increases may be coming, as officials expect a $25 million imbalance by 2023.

Miscellaneous: Each year, commissioners approve items tacked onto the budget. This time, the board agreed to fast-track an affordable housing program it was going to delay until 2017, moving up the $5 million it plans to spend on land acquisition to 2013-14.

Other projects include $3 million for replacing radio towers, $9 million for relocating the sheriff and police communication system to a storm proof building, and $1.6 million for an electronic poll book system for the supervisor of elections.

Pinellas commissioners pass budget with tax increase 09/17/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 12:22am]
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