Pinellas County commissioners are leaning toward raising the property tax rate next year, but by slightly less than they anticipated.
New estimates from the state show that Pinellas County will have to pay about $10 million less in Medicaid payments, owing $59 million over 10 years instead of $69 million.
County officials said they would still press for a property tax hike to cover this cost, albeit a slightly smaller one.
At a board meeting Tuesday, County Administrator Bob LaSala proposed increasing the countywide property tax rate by about 22 cents per $1,000 of taxable value, down from his original suggestion of 25 cents.
Doing so would raise enough money to cover next year's Medicaid costs, he said, adding that the board could lower the tax rate once the debt is paid off.
Those 3 cents may not make much of a difference to taxpayers. For example, the owner of a $150,000 homesteaded property would pay $22 more instead of $25. However, lowering the tax to collect only what is needed could make it more palatable for the commissioners, three of whom are running for election.
Two of them, Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, continued to object to any tax rate increase on Tuesday.
"We want to hold our budget harmless and I can certainly understand the desirability of doing that from where we sit, but I would just like everybody to consider what that says to our residents," Bostock said. "It says: You have to make this up, we don't have to."
"I just don't think it's right for us to eliminate more of our services in a time of need," responded Commissioner Ken Welch, adding that taxpayers should blame state lawmakers for the rate hike.
"Where do we go to fund this unfair mandate from the state?" Welch asked. "I just don't see where in the budget we can do that."
Welch, Susan Latvala, John Morroni and Norm Roche said they would support some form of a tax rate increase. On Monday, Commissioner Karen Seel said she was still undecided. A majority vote is needed to pass the rate increase.
Roche argued that the board should approve LaSala's original 25-cent tax rate increase, allowing the county to pay off its Medicaid debt sooner. Proposed plans call for a five-year repayment plan.
"We could do 25 cents for two years and be done with it," he said.
Though county officials put Pinellas' budget shortfall at $24.1 million just a week ago, they revised that figure upward to roughly $25 million on Tuesday, saying that although their Medicaid bill for next year would be slightly smaller, their budget shortfall is larger than they predicted.
They now estimate a $13.9 million budget gap for 2013, combined with an $11.4 million Medicaid bill.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.