The Pinellas School Board tentatively approved its lowest tax rate in 20 years Tuesday night, but residents and at least one board member said the district can do even more.
The school district's annual levy, which this year will bring in $589-million, comprises the largest chunk of every property tax bill.
The proposed rate is $7.73 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value, down 6 percent from last year's rate of $8.21. The district will take in $1.3-million less than last year in tax revenue earmarked for operating costs, a rare occurrence in recent years but a welcome one for taxpayers clamoring for relief.
Among the factors that brought about the reduction: a decision to cut $11.4-million in construction expenses.
The district would have done better to tighten its belt much earlier instead of holding its tax rate steady in recent years and allowing record growth in property values to fuel annual revenue increases, said Hamilton Hanson of St. Petersburg, one of several residents to speak at a public hearing on the budget.
He called this year's decrease laudable but "way overdue," considering his property tax bill has skyrocketed over the last five years.
"Don't justify being good guys this year after having stolen our money for the last five years," Hanson told the board, echoing other speakers.
"I have to agree with some of our speakers," said board member Janet Clark. "We need to look at our spending. ... I'm not saying we are throwing money away, but I think there are lots of areas we could look at where we could save from."
Though operating revenue will decrease from last year, the total budget will rise to $1.5-billion, up from $1.43-billion last year. The total budget includes money from state sources such as sales taxes and federal grants in addition to property taxes.
Board member Jane Gallucci argued it was difficult to cut an operating budget that is 88 percent salaries and benefits for the district's 15,000 employees.
Cutting the budget as deeply as some residents suggested "would be wonderful if all of our employees said, 'You know what? We don't want a raise,' " superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.
He also said the district is feeling the pain of increases in utility and insurance costs just like taxpayers.
He said cuts in state allotments this year will force an additional $18-million trim, an amount not contemplated in the budget considered Tuesday night.
Those cuts could come from custodial services, art and music programs and administrative functions, he said. He said he is asking the district's administrative headquarters in Largo to cut $4.5-million.
He also publicly volunteered to meet with Hanson, a retired Army auditor, and anyone he cared to bring along.
"I would be very interested in your ideas for savings," Wilcox said. "I don't know that I could satisfy you, but I would like to take the opportunity to learn from you."
After the meeting, Hanson said, "I'm glad he has accepted my challenge."
The board is scheduled to give final approval to the budget on Sept. 10.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923.