CLEARWATER — Pinellas County officials are starting the budget season with some good news.
Property values in the county, on average, are expected to rise by 5 percent this year — up from an initial 3 percent estimate, according to Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.
The revision means a sunnier forecast for the county's general fund, budget director Bill Berger told commissioners during a budget workshop Thursday.
Berger had predicted a shortfall of $3.9 million for the 2015 fiscal year. The forecast now calls for a surplus of $2.3 million.
It's still early in the budget process, and Berger also cautioned that the county has yet to receive budget requests from its constitutional officers, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who wants more money for deputy salaries, new cars and other equipment.
The warning wasn't lost on commissioners who say they will still take a conservative approach as they build a spending plan.
"We're still in recovery mode," Chairwoman Karen Seel said.
Earlier at the same workshop, the board got a dire prediction about how changes to the Medicaid system could affect the local health department.
The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County used to be reimbursed based on the actual cost to treat patients, said Dr. Claude Dharamraj, the department's director. But this year, the state is shifting to a managed-care system that requires departments to negotiate reimbursement rates.
That is expected to cut the department's reimbursements by up to $2 million in the next fiscal year, Dharamraj told the board. That equates to about 8,300 client visits.
"I'm going to have some people I'm not going to be able to serve," she said.
She urged the board to move forward with a plan to seek a special federal designation that would allow the county to continue to receive higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients, as well as savings for prescription drugs.
Other providers are against that, saying it will put the county in competition for patients. Dharamraj stressed Thursday that there is plenty of unmet need in Pinellas.
That decision is part of a broader discussion the board must have about indigent health care.
Commissioners learned this week that the county is in danger of losing a $5 million federal grant to build a health care clinic in Largo geared toward homeless families. The grant requires the clinic to be completed by April 15 but construction hasn't started, and the projected completion date is now December of next year. The county is asking for an extension.
Another potential obstacle: County officials have yet to negotiate contracts with local partners to provide services, equipment and other resources for the clinic.
The board hopes to work out these issues soon so that commissioners can decide by early June whether to move forward with the clinic.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.