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Expect Pinellas property tax increase for EMS

The Pinellas property tax rate will almost certainly go up next year to pay for increased costs of emergency medical services.

That's the one common factor in four options staff members are scheduled to present to the County Commission during a Tuesday workshop. The proposals show the jumps in property tax rates for emergency medical services ranging from 18 to 47 percent. The lesser tax hikes would be offset by increases in ambulance fees, a reduction in reserves, or both.

The proposals are designed to make up an estimated $13.6 million shortfall between revenues and the expenses of the EMS system.

Option 1: This would maintain four months of reserves and leave ambulance fees at their current level, which average $473.73 for the county. But the EMS property tax rate would jump by 47 percent, or add $39.99 to the tax bill for a home with an assessed value of $170,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption.

Option 2: Would maintain reserves, increase ambulance fees by 10.15 percent, or about $48, per ride. Taxes would go up 43 percent, adding $35.93 to the tax bill of the $170,000 home.

Option 3: Would reduce the county's EMS reserves to a three-month cushion, leave ambulance fees as they are and increase taxes 22 percent, adding $18.97 to the tax bill of the $170,000 home.

Option 4: Would reduce reserves to the three-month level, increase ambulance fees by 10.15 percent and property taxes by 18 percent. That would add $14.91 to the property tax bill on the $170,000 home.

A tax increase to pay for EMS has been a likelihood since last year, when the county dipped into reserves to pay for higher costs without raising taxes. Officials said then that could not be done a second time. And earlier this year, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that an increase was likely.

An increase in taxes seems to be almost unavoidable now with property values expected to decline by about 12 percent from last year. Budgets submitted by the county's 18 fire districts had an increase of about 5 percent, or $1.9 million.

The requested increases included no new positions or units, but came mostly from higher salaries and benefits for paramedics. County figures show the average EMS-funded paramedic will earn 4.3 percent, or $2,098 more, next year than this year. The average increase in benefits will be about 12.12 percent, or $3,803 more than this year. That makes for an overall increase in compensation of about 6.3 percent, or $5,901.

At least one county commissioner said he is willing to look at a tax increase to fund the county's EMS system.

"In the context of falling property values … it is not a tax increase," Welch said. "I think at some point you have to look at do you have a sufficient revenue base to fund services at a sufficient level?"

Referring to requests for funding increases, Welch said that each would have to be individually vetted and that necessary streamlining would have to take place.

But, Welch said, "the question becomes, if those are legitimate requests, how are we going to fund it? … At the end of the day, though, with a reduced property tax base in the county, we're going to have to look at what to do on the revenue side of it."

That's a solution for the short term, he said. The longer-term solution could involve a revamping of the entire system.

"Some sort of consolidation," for example, would "have a lot more efficiencies," Welch said.

That's a topic that has been much talked about throughout the years but has never taken root. But now might be the time, Welch said.

"At some point, the economics drive us to looking at the system with a fresh pair of eyes," he said.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8450 or twitter.com/alindbergtimes.

Fast facts

County discussion

The County Commission will discuss EMS and fire funding issues after a board meeting at 9:30 Tuesday at the County Courthouse at 315 Court St. in Clearwater.

Expect Pinellas property tax increase for EMS 05/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 5:12pm]
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