Pinellas County government has not been known for its fiscal restraint, but its recent budgets indicate it is making an effort to cut spending to fit today's economic realities. Cuts were made in 2008 and 2009, and for 2010, the county and its constitutional offices plan to slash another $78 million and 739 positions.
But a few of the cuts go too deep, harming the vulnerable at a time when they most need the help of their government. At a budget workshop Tuesday, county commissioners should find a way to restore the most painful of those cuts.
With most of their revenue streams trending downward, commissioners have two choices: Find other cuts or slightly bump up the tax rate. County Commissioner Ken Welch is lobbying for the latter but has so far found little support.
Under the 2010 budget proposed by County Administrator Bob LaSala, the county tax rate would stay the same as this year, at $5.45 per $1,000 of taxable property value. But because property values are falling, the county would collect $43 million less than it did this year. Welch wants to restore about $21 million of the loss by raising the tax rate slightly to $5.78 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
With that $21 million, Welch wants to add back $7 million worth of items LaSala planned to cut: $3 million to county hospitals for indigent health care; $3 million for the county Housing Trust Fund that builds affordable housing; $345,000 for nonprofit community programs that help the needy; $408,500 for Animal Services to prevent earlier euthanization of animals; and $257,000 for Emergency Management so the county can work on its hurricane shelter deficit.
With the remaining $14 million, Welch wants to create a financial stabilization fund. Without the fund, the county faces a $10 million budget gap next year, which will grow each year afterward. With the stabilization fund, the county could stay in the black through 2013, he said. That would buy the county time to work on consolidation of services with other local governments and a county government reorganization. Welch makes a good case for a stabilization fund, which other local governments also are creating in the face of forecasts of an even worse revenue picture next year.
The disadvantage of Welch's plan is that it calls for a slight tax rate increase. For most businesses and other nonhomesteaded property owners, the tax bill would still be lower than this year's because of declining property values. The increase for some homesteaded homeowners would be small, and the county still would take in fewer dollars than it did this year. But a tax increase of any sort is a tough sell politically in this economy.
Before commissioners raise taxes, they should search the $611 million general fund budget for, at a minimum, the $3 million to reimburse hospitals for indigent health care and $345,000 for community nonprofits. The county's contribution for hospital indigent care was insufficient even before cuts began; a further reduction will threaten the hospitals' willingness to partner with the county on its primary care program for the poor. County funding for community nonprofits, which provide help to the homeless, the mentally ill and others, often is used as matching dollars for grants.
The loss of funding in these two categories could be devastating for Pinellas residents with no other resources and could have unintended consequences throughout the community. Commissioners should find the money to restore those cuts — or consider Welch's proposal.