ST. PETE BEACH — Hoping to prevent severe cuts in city services and personnel, the City Commission on Tuesday tentatively approved a slight increase in property taxes.
Keeping the rate unchanged would result in a nearly $400,000 shortfall for the coming year, City Manager Mike Bonfield said.
To offset a 10 percent decline in property values as well as effects of Amendment 1 and reductions in state shared revenues, lower permit-fee collections and interest earnings, and increased expenses for electricity and fuel, Bonfield's proposed $14.6-million budget for 2008-2009 calls for a number of significant cuts.
Among them are reductions in the number of city employees and contracting out some city services.
"The proposed budget cuts will push the city staff to the limit in providing the level of service the residents have enjoyed in the past," Bonfield said in his budget letter to the City Commission.
"St. Pete Beach faces a more difficult task than many other local governments," he said, citing costs associated with the city's police and fire departments, and services provided by recreation and parks programs and at the library.
"We have very few other revenue streams (other than property taxes) to fund these services," he said. As a result, the city has maintained lower reserves than many others.
Bonfield had proposed that the city maintain its present millage rate of 2.3764 mills, which he said was the lowest in the county for cities that operate their own police and fire departments.
The proposed budget includes cuts in nearly every department. Bonfield described them as the "bare minimum" and said the hope is that personnel and services eliminated now will be restored once the city's finances improve.
However, to eliminate proposed reductions in firefighters, to keep dispatch services within the local Police Department, and to create a larger reserve fund, the tax rate would have to increase to 2.5697 mills, an 8.13 percent increase, but still lower than the 2.6242 "rollback" millage rate that would generate the same level of income as the current year.
Commissioners compromised, setting the tentative millage rate at 2.4764 mills. The result, they said, is an average $26 increase in annual property tax bills for residents.
"I can support a 4 percent increase," Commissioner Linda Chaney said.
Commissioners Christopher Leonard and Ed Metz voted against increasing the millage rate, arguing that residents' property tax bills should be cut instead.
Metz said he and other commissioners had run for office on a platform of lower taxes.
Reaction from residents attending the meeting was mixed.
Mayor Mike Finnerty and Commissioner Al Halpern joined Chaney to approve the higher tax rate, stressing it could be reduced in final budget discussions.
Tentative millage rates, which can be lowered but not increased during final budget approval, now set or under consideration in other beach communities include:
TREASURE ISLAND: Considering a 2.7998 tentative millage rate, an approximately 17.25 percent increase over the present 2.3878 rate.
MADEIRA BEACH: Approved 1.794 mills, unchanged from the present rate and resulting in an average tax savings of 10 percent for residents.
REDINGTON BEACH: Approved 1.941 mills, unchanged from the present rate.
NORTH REDINGTON BEACH: Approved 0.7511 mills, unchanged.
REDINGTON SHORES: Workshop discussion of proposed millage and tentative budget scheduled at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
INDIAN SHORES: Commission meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at 7 p.m. to set tentative millage rate.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH: Approved 2.2 millage rate, higher than both the staff-recommended rate of 1.8939 mills and current rate of 1.4695 mills.
BELLEAIR BEACH: Approved 1.98 mills, unchanged.
BELLEAIR SHORE: Approved 0.5256 mills, unchanged.