Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board has a strong case for increasing its property tax rate in 2011-12. The economy has forced the agency to make significant changes to cut spending and improve effectiveness as the depressed economy has generated more demand for children's services. And only longtime homeowners who already pay far less in property taxes than their neighbors due to Save Our Homes will see a higher tax bill.
The JWB will hold its first public hearing on its proposed budget and the tax rate increase on Thursday. Its board — five county elected officials and six gubernatorial appointees — is not seeking more tax money, just the same amount it collected this year. Since 2006, the agency's tax revenue has shrunk 22 percent, forcing similar cuts in the number of children served. But the board's members, including Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and State Attorney Bernie McCabe, make a good case that they are using each dollar more wisely as the board has forced efficiencies on providers and culled programs deemed too expensive for their effectiveness. The board also softened the blow with $18 million in surplus funds it had socked away for tough times.
The same principle guides the JWB as it did more than 50 years ago, when voters agreed to designate a group of citizens to direct a pot of tax money aimed solely at investing and intervening in the lives of at-risk children. Ultimately, that investment is far cheaper than housing that child if he turns to crime or if she ends up in foster care.
The JWB does not directly provide services. Its job is to assess needs and funnel money to social service agencies to do the work. The laundry list ranges from parental education for teen mothers and mentoring to court diversion programs for older children. There are programs to help families in crisis, such as those where parents have substance abuse problems or where someone is suddenly raising a young relative.
This work has continued with fewer dollars even as the economy escalates the need: Homeless public school students in Pinellas now top 2,500, up nearly fourfold from 2005. Food stamp usage has more than doubled in the county. And deaths from prescription drugs continue to suggest a growing addiction problem across the community.
The $44.7 million the JWB wants to raise in tax dollars next year is the same amount it raised last year but far less than the $57 million Pinellas property owners paid just five years ago. Due to declining property values, the board will need to increase the property tax rate from about 79 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value to 83 cents. Yet most homeowners and all commercial property owners will still pay 15 percent less next year under the new tax rate. (If the property tax rate is not increased, the savings would be about 20 percent.)
The JWB's proposed tax rate increase is a fiscally wise plan for continued investment in the community's youngest residents that will pay long-term dividends. Even in tough economic times, that's still a smart choice.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County is seeking to raise its millage rate from 79 cents per $1,000 assessed value to 83 cents. An editorial in Tuesday's paper provided the incorrect millage rate.