The Pinellas Planning Council, a countywide land planning agency, works without much public notice. Its staff of nine toils quietly over zoning maps and land-use documents in a downtown Clearwater office building. The staff works for a council with 13 members — all of them elected officials representing Pinellas cities, the county and the School Board — that meets once a month to make decisions about land-use issues throughout Pinellas. Its meetings are, in a word, dull.
However, sometimes the council finds itself at the center of a controversy. It happened in May, when the PPC fought the Pinellas County Commission's plan to designate a portion of the Brooker Creek Preserve for future construction of water treatment plants, water storage tanks and such. The PPC, which can be overruled by the County Commission, lost that fight but won accolades for fighting back.
Now, at budget time, the PPC is in the county's crosshairs. The county administrator wants the agency to slash its budget almost in half and stop levying its dedicated tax on county residents. Is this the county's revenge for the Planning Council's Brooker Creek moxie, or perhaps the first volley in a county effort to rid itself of the PPC entirely?
County Administrator Bob LaSala, who says the PPC fulfills a "useful function," insists this is about budgets and the tough economy, nothing more. The county faces a big shortfall in its fiscal 2010 budget. LaSala has been searching for cuts.
When he reviewed the PPC's proposed $1.4 million budget for next year, LaSala discovered it had a reserve fund of more than $900,000. Contending that the council should spend its reserves before levying taxes, LaSala suggested the PPC drop some of its work, cut its budget by more than 40 percent and drop its tax rate to zero.
LaSala says what he's asking of the PPC is no more than what he has asked of other county departments.
But the Pinellas Planning Council is not a county department like public works or parks and recreation. It was established in 1988 by a special act of the Florida Legislature, which recognized that in a small county fractured by 25 independent local governments, someone with a countywide perspective ought to be minding the store when it comes to land development. Legislators gave the PPC numerous tasks, among them developing a countywide future land-use plan, developing rules to implement that plan, and coordinating growth management procedures.
The special act also gave the PPC the right to levy a property tax of up to 0.1666 of a mill (a mill produces $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value). The council's current levy of 0.0170 — about a 10th of what is allowed — shows up as a separate line on county tax bills.
Does this mean the PPC is financially independent and can do what it wants? Not exactly, because the special act muddied the waters. It states that "the board of county commissioners shall have the right to review the budget, raising or reducing it as it deems necessary."
Healey insists his agency has been fiscally responsible. It has lowered its millage rate 24 percent since 2003. Its reserve fund ballooned because two large consultant contracts did not complete in the year they were expected to, he said. He is already spending the reserve funds — $237,000 this year alone — but the council was continuing to collect some tax dollars so it could perform extra tasks, such as providing more help to small cities that don't have their own planning departments and studying ways to accommodate expanded mass transit in Pinellas. But if the county prevails in slashing the budget, Healey said he will have to lay off part of his staff and cut his work program.
At a special meeting at 9 a.m. Monday, the entire Planning Council will meet to figure out how to respond to the county — essentially, whether to capitulate, negotiate or draw a line in the sand.
The PPC's detractors say it adds an unnecessary layer of government to the land development process. But remember, the Florida Legislature just gutted the state's growth management laws and made it easier for developers to have their way, especially in urban counties like Pinellas. An extra layer of government review at the local level seems like a good idea now. I won't complain about the $1.39 I paid in taxes for the PPC last year.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is [email protected]