Editor's note: Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch writes in response to "How local governments blew the housing bubble," a July 12 Perspective article, and accompanying editorial, "Poor stewards of our money." The article noted that Pinellas County's general fund spending has increased by 44.5 percent since 2000, while the increase would have been 29 percent if it accounted only for inflation and population changes.
During these challenging times, governments and communities are working together to make difficult choices that will determine the scope of local government for years to come. It is easy, perhaps even tempting, to point the finger solely at local government as the culprit during this period of service reductions, fee increases and layoffs. However, an objective analysis finds our fiscal challenges are the result of many factors, including government program spending and service duplication, successive years of mandated budget cuts, Florida's inequitable property tax model and the global recession. It is important to realize that the challenge creates new opportunities for collaboration, consolidation and a strategic reassessment of our community priorities and the government programs designed to address those priorities.
The initiatives undertaken by Pinellas County during the last several years were specifically aligned with community priorities and implemented in response to emerging needs and requests from Pinellas citizens. These programs include the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, homeless services (including Pinellas Hope), code enforcement, expansion of medical and dental care, hospital support, recreation, law enforcement and public safety. Careful planning enabled the county to keep most of these initiatives funded, although some at a reduced level, even after a combined $55 million in property tax revenue reductions due to rollbacks mandated by the Legislature in 2007 and by Amendment 1.
Pinellas County did not spend all of the new tax revenue generated during the past few years, but saved a substantial portion of the new property taxes collected. About $65 million was allocated to the county's general fund reserves between 2004 and 2006. This "savings account" is set aside to better position Pinellas County to recover after a hurricane or other natural disaster, to maintain cash flow at the beginning of each new fiscal year and to handle other emergencies. During the last two years, the county has strategically spent down a portion of our reserves, while maintaining a minimum reserve of 15 percent of the general fund balance.
Another important budget consideration is the operational cost of capital projects funded by the Penny for Pinellas infrastructure sales tax. The Penny for Pinellas, a sales tax supported in significant measure by tourists, requires careful planning for the operation and maintenance of Penny-funded projects once they are completed. The county modified its budgeting approach years ago to reflect this reality. Unfortunately, the St. Petersburg Times specifically cited a Penny project, Eagle Lake Park, as an example of poor planning by the county because the "nearly completed" park can't be opened to the public. In fact, Eagle Lake Park is not complete and, according to county staff, requires 120 to 150 days of additional postconstruction work. The park has long been scheduled to open during the next fiscal year. It would be imprudent, and surely criticized by the Times, if the county had budgeted current year operational dollars for a park not scheduled to be completed until the next fiscal year.
Our challenges have provided some opportunities. A new level of consolidation and right-sizing of services, from EMS to information technology, is occurring both within Pinellas County government and with our cities. This has been painful for the county, with many employee layoffs and more than 1,100 jobs eliminated in the past three years. For positions under the county commissioners, we will enter the next year with the fewest number of employees since 1988.
Some of the effects of our changing economic climate are positive. Parochial and political roadblocks to intergovernmental efficiencies are now being trumped by fiscal realities. It is long overdue. Also long overdue, but not yet achieved, is a restructuring of Florida's antiquated tax structure. The inequity of Florida's property tax system continues to undermine the stability of local and state government in Florida, underfund our education system and encourage cost shifts from state government to local property taxpayers. Under the current system, longtime homestead property owners (like me) have not shared equally in funding the cost of government.
Today's economic and political realities require an evolution in our approach to government. In Pinellas County, that evolution is well under way. We must refine our priorities, achieve higher levels of collaboration, consolidate duplicative services and find the leadership to address our unsustainable and inequitable system of funding state and local government. Stewardship is not limited to government. We all share responsibility for shaping the future of our community.
Ken Welch is a Pinellas County commissioner.