Property values are expected to rise in Pinellas County for the first time in five years, but that didn't stop county Administrator Bob LaSala from suggesting another tax rate increase.
LaSala unveiled a proposal Tuesday to raise the general fund tax rate by 5 percent next year, a move that, if approved, would mark two years of consecutive hikes. The increase is needed, he said, to cover raises for county and sheriff's employees, as well as a state mandate to increase retirement contributions.
LaSala's proposal is an about-face from plans he put forward in February to drain the county's reserve fund. At the time, the county was facing a roughly $12.1 million deficit for the 2013-14 fiscal year, most of which would have been covered by the reserve.
But in the last moments of the 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 would come to about $5 million.
County officials are now assuming a $9.3 million shortfall next year. But instead of spending the $10 million reserve fund, they want to keep it intact. Larger deficits loom in coming years, they predict, and the county will need to maintain and add to its cushion rather than spend it.
Rising property values have prompted other municipalities to hold the line on taxes. Hillsborough County, which also plans to give its employees their first raises since 2009, is keeping tax rates flat. And neither Tampa nor St. Petersburg, which is in the middle of a mayoral election, have announced plans to raise rates.
To plug next year's gap and fill an expected deficit in 2015, Pinellas officials propose to increase the general fund tax rate from $5.01 per $1,000 of taxable value to $5.27. For a homeowner with a property valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption, this would mean paying $527, up from $501 the year before.
The higher tax rate would pay for a 2.8 percent pay increase for county employees — an idea LaSala and other officials have been promoting in recent months as a solution to the difficulty Pinellas has had attracting and keeping qualified employees. The tax hike also would cover a 4 percent pay raise for sheriff's employees, though Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he still has to negotiate the exact figure with the union. Most county and sheriff employees have not had a raise for four or five years.
On Tuesday, LaSala told the board that the county could not afford its current service levels, as well as pay raises, without more revenue.
"In some cases, we've cut too far," he said, adding later, "There's not a lot of magic left here in local government budgeting."
For the third time in as many years, LaSala also wants to raise the tax rate for emergency medical services next year. An 8 percent increase, which would bring the tax rate from roughly $0.92 per $1,000 taxable value to $0.99, would balance that fund for the next two years. It would require the approval of two-thirds of the board and, even if it passes, future tax increases would likely be necessary, according to LaSala's budget proposal.
LaSala also pitched to the board the idea of setting aside $17.5 million for a disaster reserve fund — money that would be used for cleanup and emergency response efforts after a devastating storm.
Presented with the possibility of two tax rate increases next year, Commissioner Susan Latvala said that while she supported the plan, she worried the public would reject it.
"How are we going to inform the public and convince them that this is a good thing to do?" she said. "Nobody wants new taxes."
pain clinic ban extended: Pinellas County commissioners who banned any new pain management clinics from opening three years ago decided the ban is still needed in the absence of state action.
At Tuesday's Board of County Commissioners meeting, Tim Burns, director of Justice and Consumer Services, said the moratorium, which began in 2010, has helped decrease the number of overdose fatalities. But Florida's prescription drug abuse problem remains one of the worst in the nation, linked to high rates of death, addiction and child care problems — including babies born addicted to drugs like Oxycodone.
Commissioners cracked down on pain management clinics in 2010, giving them a month to register or face fines and possible shutdown. Subsequent amendments extended the moratorium, tacked on fines and instituted prescription limits to curb the problem of overprescribing.
Tuesday's unanimous vote brings an extension of the moratorium to 60 days after the close of the 2014 legislative session.
Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed to this story. Contact Anna M. Phillips at (727) 893-8779 or [email protected]