CLEARWATER –– After another year of growth, Pinellas County commissioners won't have to fight to pay for critical needs in the 2017-2018 budget.
Higher property values brought in an additional $77 million over the prior year. But that won't lead to a spending frenzy.
Officials plan to watch spending because the Legislature is putting a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot. If passed, the legislation would add a $25,000 homestead exemption on properties valued at more than $100,000.
Florida's counties would lose millions in property tax revenue.
But County Administrator Mark Woodard isn't looking too far into the future yet.
"It's always important to look to the past and look to what has been accomplished in the current year," he said about the proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
He presented the nearly $2.3 billion proposed spending plan to the board on Tuesday. The next fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Commissioners will vote on the proposal in September. Here are some highlights:
No tax rate hike
The budget does not include a proposal to raise the general fund or unincorporated area tax rates.
The property tax rate, which is paid by property owners countywide, would remain at $5.30 per $1,000 in assessed taxable property value. That equates to $527.55 for an average homeowner whose property is valued at $100,000 with exemptions included.
The unincorporated area property tax rate, paid by owners whose property is not in one of the county's 26 cities, would remain at $2.09 per $1,000, adding $208.75 to the bill. That rate has not changed since 2008.
Pinellas has the lowest debt per capita among Florida's urban counties, Woodard said.
Raises for employees
For at least the third straight year, the budget includes 3 percent raises for full-time employees.
The pay increases for about 3,500 workers. Woodard said the goal is to keep the county competitive in the labor market.
The 2,100 employees under the county commission are similar to 1989 staffing levels.
Officials are setting aside $2 million to undertake a pay and classification study, which is expected to be completed in the next year.
Departments get more funding
The departments under the Pinellas County Commission will see a 4.2 percent increase, or nearly $60 million more in funding, from last year's budget. The departments account for 65 percent, or $1.5 billion, of the total budget.
Some services include the airport, solid waste, animal services, parks and public works.
So do constitutional offices
The five constitutional offices — the sheriff, clerk of the court, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and tax collector –– account for nearly 17 percent, or $365 million, of the total budget. Of that, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office accounts for $289 million. The five offices have a total of 2,910 employees.
Connecting with residents
Woodard pointed to a survey that found nine out of 10 Pinellas residents say they have a great deal to a fair amount of trust and confidence in their county government.
Staff will continue to use budget information sessions and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and the Next Door application, to interact with residents.
"We are closing the gap and moving the needle," Woodard said.
Reasons for optimism
Woodard highlighted a few other signs to show that the county is moving in the right direction:
The economic development department helped 21 business relocate or expand, he said, creating 1,300 news jobs and retaining another 300 jobs.
Bed tax dollars rose nearly $32 million over the prior year.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente