For the first time in several years, Pinellas County agencies stand to raise property tax rates this year.
It means many homeowners will have to pay more for property that is worth less than last year, or plead against hikes in public hearings this summer.
Officials say they're reaching a breaking point after successive years of decreasing tax rolls. So when taxpayers receive annual notices this month, they'll see:
• The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority plans to raise its tax rate by 30 percent, but is likely still to curb service on some routes.
• Emergency medical service rates shooting up 46 percent to help avoid what county officials describe as a crippling financial shortfall.
• The Juvenile Welfare Board plans to raise its tax rate by 5 percent. The board warns the hike will allow it only to maintain its current budget for school readiness and fighting neglect and abuse of kids.
Some increases are the first since the state mandated cuts in 2007. In all, 28 of the 65 possible tax rates could go up — despite the risk of voter backlash for politicians who support them and whose names will appear on the ballot soon.
"We have reached the point in some budgets where harm could be done," said County Commissioner Karen Seel, a Juvenile Welfare Board member who supports its tax increase even as she faces a re-election bid in 2012.
The median assessed value for homesteaded property in Pinellas has fallen to $94,055 this year, compared with $96,482 in 2010, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of the preliminary tax roll.
People like David Miller, 55, who sells and installs home audio and video systems, will see their tax bills go up.
"What are you going to do — go to City Hall and holler? No, I'm too old," said Miller, who bought his St. Petersburg home in 1987.
The tan, single-story block home in Snell Shores is assessed at just a few dollars above the median this year. He and his wife, Jolene, raised two kids in the home, which is now worth less than it was before they built a $50,000 addition in 2006.
But his tax bill stands to increase $43 to $1,178 for 2011, thanks to some rate increases and a quirk in Florida's Save Our Homes tax cap. The assessed value of Millers' house rose 1.5 percent because it is still below the market value of $116,152 set by the Property Appraiser's Office.
The Millers are not alone. Nearly half of homesteaded Pinellas homeowners fall under the cap's "recapture" rule, although that percentage is not as high as 2006, when it was 90 percent. The "recapture" rule allows taxable value on Save Our Homes parcels to rise even as property values decline, if the home is still assessed below market rate.
For those reasons, the tax increase alone doesn't rattle Miller, who isn't perturbed by the extra $8 for bus service or $12.50 for ambulances. In fact, the tax rates for the city and county general fund are flat — and the Southwest Florida Water Management District will charge him less.
He doesn't have any major qualms over the county or the city, though he wishes Mayor Bill Foster would do more to negotiate with the Tampa Bay Rays on a new stadium. Oh, and there is that new trail for bikes and pedestrians along First Street near his home that also makes him second-guess their thinking, too.
The bigger problem to him is all the cost-of-living increases.
His home insurance is going up almost 10 percent to $2,209. Auto and health insurance costs more, too.
"It's becoming hard to live in Florida," Miller said. "Life in paradise doesn't come cheap."
Others are agitated, however. Phil Tropea, a Palm Harbor resident, went to the County Commission on Thursday, urging them to avoid tax and fee increases.
Besides the tax rate for emergency medical service, the county proposes higher rates for some fire districts. The county already wants to begin charging $5 fees at Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, both beachfront attractions. Sewer rates are set to rise.
"We are looking under every leaf, every stone — and that has gone on for four years now," commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala told Tropea.
Though Tropea left doubting their efforts, the county's proposed budget marks a $360 million decrease since 2008.
Latvala, who supports the EMS increase and is still "thinking" about the PSTA hike, said the county has long-term questions to decide how it pays for services.
The tax roll, which shed 4.5 percent of its value this year, reduced the transit service's prime source of money. PSTA officials have said the rate increase could stanch the bleeding of reserve money until they persuade voters to approve a sales tax increase.
"We're trying to look to the future," Latvala said.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.