ST. PETE BEACH — The official debate began Tuesday over how to close a nearly million-dollar budget gap.
City commissioners agreed there are really only two solutions — close the city's police department or raise property taxes as much as 25 percent.
In unanimous decisions, both options were put firmly on the table.
In the first of two required votes, the commission agreed to ask voters in November for the power to close the city's police department. The second vote to set the referendum election will be taken at the commission's July 24 meeting.
Stressing that the final decision will not be made until September, the commission also set the city's tentative millage rate at 3.5628 mills — a hike of $70.59 for every $100,000 in taxable property value after exemptions.
Currently, city property owners pay 2.8569 mills in property taxes. The proposed tax rate is now the highest the commission can set for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, but it could be lowered in the final budget which will take effect Oct. 1.
"This just gives us the flexibility. We haven't even begun to discuss the budget," said Commissioner Bev Garnett.
City Manager Mike Bonfield, who asked for budget planning "flexibility," stressed the higher millage rate was for "discussion purposes" to "get the attention" of taxpayers.
"I am okay with raising it for discussion purposes, but I can tell you I am 99 percent sure I am going to vote for no increase in taxes," said Commissioner Marvin Shavlan.
At the same time, several residents urged the commission to do just that.
"You are doing the right thing," said resident Rick Falkenstein. "Don't be scared."
Saying she wants "to be proud to live here," resident Rosemary Manning urged the city to raise enough money to fix the city's streets.
Other residents likened the property tax increase to less than the cost of a daily cup of coffee.
If the commission sticks with this rate increase, it would raise an additional $1.3 million — more than enough to close the city's $939,577 budget gap and pay for the costs of maintaining the city-run police department.
That revenue is almost exactly what switching to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office would save the city each year.
And that is why the commission also wants the power to make that switch and avoid having to raise property taxes.
Even though voters would not be able to remove city charter protection for the Police Department by the Sept. 30 budget decision deadline, Shavlan is convinced the city can avoid setting a higher tax rate by delaying spending on other projects until after the November vote.
A number of residents complained that the proposed ballot wording was confusing, since a "yes" vote would not mean keeping the Police Department.
City Attorney Susan Churuti stressed the voters are being asked to repeal a charter provision to give the commission the power to close the Police Department .
"When you vote yes, we will take that as approval to go with the Sheriff," Garnett said.