Paying higher property taxes is never particularly welcome. But it's even harder to stomach when at least some of the increases are due to the failures of elected officials to lead. A significant share of higher taxes that many Pinellas County property owners could owe in 2012-13 can be traced to bad decisions at the state, county and local level — not inflation or enhanced services. That doesn't inspire confidence in government, and highlights in this election year why races up and down the ballot matter.
The Pinellas County Commission, for one, knew many taxpayers wouldn't be happy when they opened their TRIM — truth in millage — notices this week and saw close to a 5 percent increase in the tax rate it charges for general government services. So the Republican-dominated board took the unusual step of including a note to taxpayers passing the buck, and rightly so. The blame for this increase in millage lays squarely on the shoulders of the Republican-led Legislature, which instead of spending the time and resources to correct a faulty Medicaid billing system, just decided to require immediate and extraordinary payments from counties so the state would not have to make more cuts or raise taxes.
But the commissioners provided no notation of the 7.7 percent millage they have proposed for the county emergency management services. Why? Because this time, they are to blame. The commissioners — despite significant staff efforts and amid much interagency squabbling — have lollygagged for yet another year in figuring out how to make the county's emergency services and ambulance system more cost effective.
Property owners in St. Petersburg face an even higher potential property tax increase. The City Council — trying to keep all of its options open as it finishes next year's budget — has suggested it might raise the millage rate as much as 14.5 percent, or implement an even worse idea of a regressive fire fee, to stave off additional budget cuts. The far wiser course would be a combination of solutions, from spending cuts to using some city reserves along with a smaller property tax increase.
None of this is to suggest, however, that all the increased tax amounts Pinellas property owners may see on their TRIM notice are equally unacceptable. In particular, longtime homeowners who have enjoyed years of paying far less property taxes than their newer neighbors under Save Our Homes can't complain when they're asked to pay just a bit closer to their equal share under the state's recapture rule.
But tax increases traced to poor policy or incompetence are never welcome. Elections matter. All of them.