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Pinellas commissioner's tax hike proposal will be a tough sell

CLEARWATER — Before Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch proposed raising the county tax rate, the board had spent more than four hours dissecting spending cuts.

Commissioners were told that there will be less money to treat poor people at hospitals, to help the homeless, and to aid community groups.

Still, the other six commissioners reacted with cold silence last week when Welch suggested the tax hike to stave off some of the harsher cuts in the 2010 budget.

Their reaction might not improve Tuesday, when the commission debates Welch's proposal.

Welch wants to raise the tax rate by 33 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value, pumping an estimated $21 million into the budget.

The owner of a home with a taxable value of $113,500 after exemptions — the typical value in Pinellas — would pay the county roughly $38 more next year under Welch's plan, according to a Times analysis. That's because Florida's Save Our Homes property tax cap allows values to rise when they're below market worth, a situation affecting two-thirds of county homeowners.

But in last week's meeting, Welch highlighted the reduction an owner of a nonhomestead property worth $150,000 would receive even with the rate hike. That owner would pay nearly $54 less to the county because of plummeting values.

"You're not actually taxed the cost of government, just like I'm not being assessed taxes for the cost of government, because of Save Our Homes," Welch said.

It'll be a tough sell. Public opposition could be fierce.

"I didn't run for office to worry about political risks," Welch said.

The other six commissioners all expressed opposition or concern about raising the tax rate during interviews with the Times.

"Not interested," said Commissioner Karen Seel.

A common theme: The bad economy makes it a bad time to raise the tax rate — and might only stoke people's anger.

"Right now, I'm leaning against it unless there's an overwhelming amount of support," Commissioner John Morroni said.

But across the Tampa Bay area and Florida, tough times are prompting politicians to propose what was considered politically treacherous a few years ago.

For example, tax rate hikes have been proposed to compensate for falling property tax revenue in Clearwater, Pasco County, Safety Harbor, Palm Beach County and Jacksonville, among others.

"Certainly people are struggling out there to meet mortgage payments," Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "But again, the demographics are changing, and the levels of service that people expect are rising."

In places such as Largo and Pasco, officials proposed higher rates initially but say they could lower them before budget votes wrap up in September. Raising the rate after early August becomes more difficult because of the deadline to mail tax notices to residents.

Like Welch, some officials argue the county isn't actually raising taxes because the same or less money would be collected. Pinellas would still take in $22 million less than this year.

Welch said the higher Pinellas rate is needed because after $78 million in cuts for 2010, the county already projects a budget deficit of $10 million in 2011. The county risks cutting "beyond bone," he said.

And he refused to call his proposal a tax increase.

"By no definition of the word would this be a property tax increase. It is an additional cut in our property taxes," Welch insisted.

But commissioner Nancy Bostock is firmly against any increase.

During the real estate boom, governments collected increasing amounts of property tax revenue while the rates stayed the same or lowered and dismissed criticism that it equaled a tax increase.

"I think we should be consistent," now, Bostock said.

Welch said Sheriff Jim Coats promised to support it, but when contacted, Coats summed up his support as "perhaps."

Later, Coats said he will support Welch after receiving a promise that the Sheriff's Office would be spared deeper cuts.

But worries over budget cuts spread beyond the sheriff to health care and other services — places Welch wants to stave off deep cuts.

For example, the proposed 2010 budget cuts $3 million from the fund that pays for poor people to receive care at Bayfront Medical Center and the BayCare hospitals.

It's a 50 percent reduction from this year's $6 million, and top county officials say it endangers health care for indigent residents.

The county has tried to spend more money on preventative and primary care to reduce the high costs of uninsured people going to a hospital, as part of a revamped strategy began Aug. 1.

But emergency and serious hospital visits are still required.

With less money, people with serious illness, such as tumors, might not be covered for treatment. Or they could end up in emergency rooms when it's too late.

Plus, the county's contracts with hospitals expire Sept. 30, and officials worry that hospitals might not renew the program with less money.

Hospital officials and Maureen Freaney, the county's health and human services director, confirm that hospitals could back out. Freaney's department faces a $10.8 million cut overall.

Other cuts include ending the evening shift of the county's mobile medical unit, which Pinellas officials say will stop 1,200 people from receiving treatment during off hours.

The county also would cut $345,000 from money for community groups — agencies like the Homeless Emergency Project of Clearwater.

"If we don't have it … I think we at some point have to curtail services," said Lynne Kiehne, health care administrator for Pinellas.

Under Welch's plan, the higher tax rate would provide $7 million to erase the $3 million cut to hospital funding and $345,000 for social action groups.

Animal services would get $408,500 more than proposed, so officers can still respond to complaints. Another $257,000 would pay for emergency management planning and shelter operation improvements.

The remaining $14 million would be used to stabilize the budget, leaving it in the black until 2013, according to county budget projections. Welch said that would cure any need to further cut the sheriff's budget — and provide the community with the right financial balance, even with a higher rate.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Welch said. "And I'll let the chips fall where they may."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Pinellas commissioner's tax hike proposal will be a tough sell 07/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 26, 2009 12:04am]

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