For the first time in five years, Pinellas County officials expect to see an increase in property values next fiscal year.
Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov predicts a 3 percent rise, but county officials are budgeting for a 2.5 percent hike to be conservative. Last year, property values fell by 1.8 percent.
"It's very, very early in the process," Dubov cautioned Friday, "but sales prices are definitely up for most kinds of property and in most geographic areas of the county."
Even with rising revenue, the county's budget predictions remain gloomy.
The county's latest budget forecast estimates that its general fund will face a roughly $12.1 million deficit for the 2013-14 fiscal year, an improvement over projections last year for a shortfall nearly double that size. To fill that gap, officials are proposing to drain a special reserve fund they created to weather the recession.
"That has been the strategy from the beginning," Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard wrote in an email. The county always planned to use the fund "to bridge the downturn and provide a soft landing as revenues improve."
If officials decide to use the reserve, they would still be left with a $1.4 million shortfall.
It's uncertain how the county would handle that gap. County Administrator Bob LaSala's budget forecast, which he will present to the commission Tuesday, does not call for tax hikes for the general fund. During budget talks last year LaSala made it clear that he believes residents' quality of life would suffer if the county cut more deeply.
There currently is $556 million in the county's general fund, which officials predict will endure a long-term shortfall of $15 million to $60 million per year if nothing is done to lower costs or generate new revenue.
Among the ideas for new revenue is a suggestion that the county find a new funding source to cover storm water costs, lifting the $3.1 million burden the county currently shoulders. LaSala's forecast also notes that the county could increase user fees or create a local business tax, known as an occupational tax.
LaSala is once again predicting that property taxes will have to be increased or expenditures sharply reduced to pay for the county's emergency medical services system. If changes aren't made, LaSala said, the EMS savings account will run out at the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Pinellas' EMS system is funded mainly by a countywide property tax and ambulance user fees paid mostly by the tax-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs and private insurance. The money generated by that — an estimated $90.6 million this year — goes to pay the 18 fire departments whose employees are designed to be first on the scene of a medical emergency, the ambulance company and staff.
LaSala estimates that fire department costs — about $40.2 million this year — will rise by about 5 percent per year for the next 10 years. He estimates that the cost of the ambulance service — about $38.2 million this year — will rise about 6 percent a year for the next decade.
But all that could change.
A study of the system is underway and could result in changes that would reduce the costs. And, the contract with Paramedics Plus, the company that contracts with the county to provide ambulance service under the name Sunstar, is due to end in 2014 unless it's extended.
LaSala said negotiating a new ambulance contract could significantly alter the predicted increase in ambulance costs.