The Pinellas County Commission has chosen a prudent approach to proposed property tax increases. The commissioners signaled this week that they are likely to raise the property tax rate by 5 percent to cover a budget shortfall and modest raises for county employees, but they rejected additional increases to build reserves and pay for emergency medical services. All three proposed tax rate increases may have merit as public policy, but combined they were too much at one time for Pinellas taxpayers.
On top of the 5 percent property tax rate increase to cover operating costs, County Administrator Bob LaSala wanted an additional 4 percent increase to start building that rainy day account back up. With too many Pinellas residents still struggling, the timing isn't good for the county to bank some money that taxpayers cannot afford to pay.
By rejecting LaSala's proposed property tax rate increase for EMS, commissioners are putting more pressure on themselves to overhaul the system and save money. Spending reserves to avoid increasing EMS taxes for the third straight year is a short-term solution to a bigger problem: The system that uses both public fire departments and a private ambulance company may work well, but it is too expensive and not sustainable without some changes. A new consultant's report finds fault with several suggested options and offers no silver bullet, so it's up to the commissioners to move on an issue that has paralyzed them for years.
Even with two of the three proposed property tax increases off the table, Pinellas property owners will feel the pain. Without considering rising property values, the average county resident can expect to pay roughly $100 more next year in taxes, a new stormwater fee and other fees. That's plenty.