Anticipating that the Florida Legislature is going to require counties to contribute more money into its retirement system, Pinellas County is considering raising the property tax rate for the second year in a row.
Although early forecasts showed Pinellas heading into next year with a budget gap of about $1.4 million, County Administrator Bob LaSala now believes the number will be much greater. At a meeting Thursday, he told commissioners that by the time he presents them with his budget proposal in July, it likely will contain a tax increase of between 4 and 6 percent.
"We have to do one of three things," LaSala told the board. "Increase revenue. Decrease expenses. Or gain more efficiencies and productivity to help close that gap. My hunch is that we're going to do a little bit of all three."
LaSala said the increase is needed to cover the $5 million he expects the Legislature will force the county to pay into the Florida Retirement System. Paying that bill would involve only a minor increase — roughly a tenth of a mill — to the general fund, but that's not all the county needs, LaSala said.
Although county employees and sheriff deputies received a one-time bonus payment last year, it has been five years since their last raise. Worried that Pinellas is losing employees to other counties and slipping in the competition for qualified workers, LaSala said that both he and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri are planning to boost salaries next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
It's unclear how much employees' pay would go up, but county staffers said they expect overall personnel costs, including raises, to rise by 4 percent next year, adding $12 million to the budget deficit.
LaSala also wants to put $10 million to $15 million into a reserve fund, just as the commission did years ago to cushion the blow of the recession. On Thursday, several commissioners appeared skeptical that the county would be able to sock away money for the future while also improving services that have suffered from budget cuts and layoffs, such as code enforcement.
LaSala's proposed increase would raise the tax rate from $5.01 per $1,000 of taxable value to between $5.21 and $5.31. For example, the owner of a $100,000 homesteaded property would pay $10 to $14 more.
Last year, the commission approved raising the rate by about 5 percent to cover a $11.4 million Medicaid bill handed down by the state Legislature.
Commissioner Ken Welch said a tax increase was "justified."
"I just think there are certain basic levels of service that we shouldn't cut below and I think we're at that point," he said.
In a separate discussion, several commission members said they were reluctant to raise the property tax rate to pay for a projected shortfall in the budget for emergency medical services, saying they could cover the gap by digging into the $22 million EMS reserves.
LaSala suggested increasing the EMS tax from $0.9158 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $1.0128, an increase of about 10.6 percent. The increase would bring in about $5 million.
Anne Lindberg contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.