Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala proposed Tuesday a budget for next year that calls for two property tax rate increases, but none of the service cuts or widespread layoffs that characterized the budgets of past years.
Pinellas has reached a "tipping point," LaSala said, arguing that without tax rate increases next year, services will suffer.
In the last five years, as the revenues from property taxes have plummeted 35 percent, officials have cut about 1,700 jobs and sliced roughly $194 million from the budget. In his budget presentation Tuesday, LaSala proposed a $1.69 billion budget, a 2.3 percent increase from this year.
Property taxes have yet to rebound, and by 2013, Pinellas will have a deficit of $11.9 million, plus the additional burden of $12.2 million in Medicaid costs, the result of a decision by the Florida Legislature to hand down the bill to counties. To pay off Medicaid, LaSala is encouraging the seven commissioners to raise the countywide property tax rate by 5 percent.
He also wants to raise the portion of the property tax that pays for emergency medical services by about 22 percent, to $1.04 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. That hike would come on top of a 46 percent tax increase for EMS the county put in place this year.
"We think there would be a negative impact upon service delivery and quality of life if we cut more deeply," LaSala said after the commission meeting. "You can close parks; you can have turnaround times for repairs increase dramatically; there's no limit to the cutbacks you could make. It's a question of what level of service are you willing to endure, or lack of service."
The increases would mean the owner of a $150,000 homesteaded property would pay countywide taxes of $616, up from $572.
It's unclear whether commissioners will agree to tax increases.
The general fund tax hike will require the approval of a majority of commissioners, LaSala said, while a vote to change the EMS tax will need to be unanimous.
"I'm surprised to see 25 new positions in the budget and a millage increase," said Neil Brickfield, who, along with Nancy Bostock, said he will oppose any tax hikes. Brickfield is running for election this year against Janet Long, a Democrat.
"I intend to stand firm," Commissioner Norm Roche said. "I did not approve an increase last year and I do not intend to approve an increase this year."
While some departments would lose full-time staff under LaSala's plan, many would add new positions. Some would be paid for by grants, the county administrator said, while others would fall under the general fund or so-called "enterprise" funds, such as tourism and the airport, which generate revenue to cover their own costs.
And though the higher budget figures caught some commissioners off guard, LaSala said most of the increase can be chalked up to inflation and capital projects. The county's operating budget actually would shrink slightly.
"The intent was really to be stable," he said.
Raising the countywide tax rate by 5 percent would take care of the county's Medicaid bill, a cost that will likely dog Pinellas and other counties for years, he said. The hike would increase the tax rate to $5.06 for every $1,000 of assessed property value, up from $4.81 in 2012.
His proposal would take the emergency medical service property tax rate from about 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value to about $1.04 — a 21.7 percent jump.
Property taxes make up about 40 percent of the current $103.4 million emergency medical service budget, which would rise to roughly $113.2 million under his projected budget.
An alternative to raising taxes is to raid the $16.5 million savings in the emergency medical service fund. LaSala has advised against that, saying it could put the county in a vulnerable position in the event of a disaster, such as a hurricane.
LaSala also is suggesting the county tap its surplus fund, a reserve of $28.6 million, this year and next to help make up the shortfall. He also is adding new fees, a tactic many municipalities have taken as their yearly property tax hauls have fallen.
Last year, the county instituted a $5 admission fee at Fort De Soto Park and Howard Beach Park, which as of June, has brought in $975,000. This year, officials are proposing to add as much as $2 to the cost of camping there overnight, though that fee will depend on negotiations with the state.
There also is a proposed $5 penalty for people who make reservations to use public services, such as campsites, and then cancel, as well as a $2,500 fee for any group that holds a private event in a public park, effectively renting it for a day.
But even with these suggestions, LaSala said the county's budget shortfall in 2014 would likely be $10.7 million, not including Medicaid costs.