ST. PETE BEACH — The City Commission does not plan to raise the property tax rate next year.
That decision, made during a budget workshop this month, could still be changed during formal review of the city's proposed $14.6-million budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year beginning in October.
The commission will hold two public hearings, on Sept. 10 and 23. After the last hearing, the commission will approve the final budget and set the actual property tax rate.
During budget workshop discussions, the commission split 3-2 over property taxes. Mayor Michael Finnerty and Commissioner Al Halpern wanted to increase taxes slightly to ensure there would be no drop in police or fire services.
But primarily at the urging of Commissioner Linda Chaney, the panel decided to leave the property tax rate unchanged at 2.3764 mills.
Because property values have dropped significantly in the past few years, keeping the same rate could actually mean a lower city property tax bill.
"The majority of other cities are going to the rollback or higher. Very few are going below the rollback," City Manager Mike Bonfield told the commission.
Bonfield recommended that the commission consider a slight one-tenth increase, to 2.4764 mills, to raise an additional $245,000.
"I hope you do increase it just this tiny little bit," said one resident. "I can certainly skip a meal out."
The increase would cost $10 per $100,000 of taxable property value — or an average of $26 a year on property tax bills, he said.
"I can appreciate that it is only a $26 tax increase, but 65 percent of voters in Florida (who voted for Amendment 1) said they wanted taxes lower. I can't support a tax increase right now," Chaney said.
"I am very, very concerned about public safety," Finnerty said. "The truth is, we are cutting back four police officers. That's asking quite a bit of our Police Department."
Commissioner Christopher Leonard argued that a reduced budget would not change service levels to residents. "This is a very tight budget," he said. "It is a responsible budget."
During five budget meetings, the commission went over the proposed budget virtually line by line to find enough cuts to restore the police dispatch service and three Fire Department emergency personnel.
In the end, spending still exceeded revenue by about $100,000.
On Bonfield's recommendation, the commission asked him to reduce the capital improvements budget and find other cuts to balance the final budget.
Spending cuts still in or added to the budget include $30,000 for a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., unemployment payments, fuel, computers and vehicle maintenance, commission travel, a fire inspector, a recreation worker and a part-time secretary.
One area the commission repeatedly returned to in looking for possible spending cuts was its legal budget.
The proposed budget includes $100,000 above the normal retainer fee. This year, the city's legal fees are already $150,000 over budget.
In June the city attorney's bill included $20,000 in extra litigation fees. Additional legal work, not connected to lawsuits, totaled $25,000, but the attorney charged only the normal $5,500 monthly retainer.
"It's unfortunate we have a lot of lawsuits here," Finnerty said.