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Pinellas County Commission ponders property tax increase

CLEARWATER — Pinellas commissioners were united Tuesday in their anger at state legislators for a change in Medicaid billing that puts the county deeper into a financial hole that might only be plugged by raising property taxes.

They were less united about the notion of a tax increase: Three — Ken Welch, Susan Latvala and Norm Roche — said the tax rate will have to go up. Two — Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield — opposed an increase. Karen Seel refused to take a position until she sees the proposed budget itself. John Morroni was absent.

In the end, they directed County Administrator Bob LaSala to present a budget with several options, including one with a 5.2 percent increase in the property tax rate. LaSala is scheduled to present the proposed budget in July.

"This is beyond frustrating. ... This is an unfunded mandate from Tallahassee that we don't have the ability to pay," Welch said. The solution, he said, is to go up on the tax rate and when the complaints start, "I'll tell any citizen this is courtesy of Tallahassee."

Latvala agreed, saying, "I see no way to do this other than increasing the (tax) rate. ... The Legislature put this on the citizens."

Latvala and others advocated inserting a flier into peoples' tax notices explaining who's to blame.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the Medicaid bill into law in March. Among the provisions were changes to the billing. Those changes apply in the future, but the law also made them retroactive.

The upshot for Pinellas is an unexpected financial hit that could cost the county about $4.8 million this year; $12.2 million next fiscal year; and $10.5 million in 2013-14. Over the next 10 years, the billing change could cost Pinellas about $68.9 million. That's on top of a budget that was already awash in red ink,

"The general fund is in deficit," Welch said. "This just makes it worse."

LaSala offered several options, including dipping into savings. He also suggested filling the Medicaid hole by a 5.2 percent increase in general fund property taxes — about 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. The current rate is about $4.81 per $1,000.

Currently, the owner of a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption pays about $481.08 in property taxes to the general fund, If the commission adopted the new rate, that would increase to about $506.80.

In other action, commissioners extended a moratorium on new pain clinics that would go until 60 days after the end of the 2013 session of the Legislature. They also tightened a requirement that "high prescribing" health clinics be registered. The old rule defined a "high prescribing" clinic as one that writes more than 34 prescriptions of certain drugs in a single day. The new rule reduces that to more than 20 prescriptions.

The commission also agreed to pay $600,000 to support a kickoff party for the Republican National Convention. The August event will be held at Tropicana field.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas County Commission ponders property tax increase 05/08/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 10:34pm]
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