Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Pinellas rejects some tax hikes, but residents will likely pay more

Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday rejected two proposed tax rate increases, but residents should still expect a larger bill from the county next year.

In his initial budget proposal, County Administrator Bob LaSala suggested three different tax hikes: one to cover budget shortfalls for the next two years, one to pay for rising emergency medical services costs, and one to raise money for a rainy day fund. At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners told LaSala to forget the last two, saying they could not hit taxpayers with that many increases in one year.

"Now is not the right time," said Commissioner Karen Seel, who, along with several other commissioners, said that while it would be a "wise move" for the county to build its reserve fund, they would not support a tax increase to pay for it. To cover the shortfall in the EMS fund, they agreed to dip into reserves.

Though two rate hikes have been taken off the table, if the commission approves LaSala's budget, the average Pinellas County resident should expect to pay roughly $100 more next year in taxes and fees, not including any increase due to rising property values.

The commission is likely to approve a 5 percent tax rate increase to cover a budget shortfall and give county employees a nearly 3 percent raise. For an average homeowner whose property is valued at $100,000 with exemptions included, it would mean paying an additional $26.50 next year.

On top of that, faced with new federal regulations, the board is expected to approve a storm-water fee for unincorporated areas of the county that would take effect next fiscal year. Property owners would be charged based on how much of their land is considered nonpermeable, such as driveways and homes.

The average Pinellas home­owner would be charged $70 a year, according to Eric Naughton, the county's budget director. People with large properties could pay as much as $267 annually.

Water and sewer rates also are scheduled to increase next year. A typical customer's water bill will likely go up $1 a month, and their sewer bill will go up $2 a month.

Hanging over the discussions Tuesday was the likelihood that the commission will ask voters in 2014 for a 1-cent sales tax to pay for mass transit improvements. Agreeing to all of LaSala's proposed tax increases could put that referendum in peril, some commissioners think.

"It's certainly on my mind and I think on everybody else's," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "That is so key to the future of this county."

Along with giving employees pay raises, LaSala's budget would allow some county departments and the Sheriff's Office to hire more employees. After cutting nearly 1,700 positions in the past few years, the county hopes to add about 50, most of them in the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, which is in charge of complying with the new stormwater regulations. The budget also includes 4 percent raises for sheriff employees.

LaSala also has proposed another $5.5 million in one-time expenses, which would likely come out of reserves, commissioners agreed Tuesday.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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