Pinellas county commissioners are set to adopt the final county budget and millage rates for the 2021-2022 fiscal year during a board meeting beginning at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
The $2.9 billion budget includes spending increases to address a backlog of sidewalk and road repairs, to buy body cameras for the sheriff’s office and hire more workers to maintain county parks and buildings.
Despite a $135.9 million increase from the previous fiscal year, the proposed budget comes with a small break for Pinellas County residents.
For the first time since 2007, the general fund millage rate — or the rate at which property is taxed by the county — will be rolled back. The savings to the average residential homeowner will be $25.44 compared to what would have been owed had the tax rate remained unchanged.
The proposed drop in millage rate — from $5.27 per $1,000 of assessed taxable value, to $5.13 per $1000 — was made possible partly because of unanticipated economic growth during the pandemic. In the previous year, county officials moved about $33.9 million additional revenue into reserves in preparation for an expected economic downturn amid COVID-19.
But the downturn never came. Property values are up some 6.5 percent, and now county officials want to return dollars to taxpayers.
“Last year, we did a two-year budget plan with the idea we could keep residents’ money and raise our reserves in anticipation of the unknown,” said commission chair Dave Eggers during a budget meeting in August. “This year, it’s about giving money back.”
The question: how much?
In the original budget presented by County Administrator Barry Burton in June, the average homeowner could have seen $53 saved in property tax, with a proposed millage rate of $5.01 per $1,000.
But after county commissioners decided not to adopt a 5-cent increase on the gas tax that Burton and the Office of Budget & Management recommended to replenish the county’s transportation trust fund, that proposed property-tax cut was too large.
The transportation trust fund is the lone account designated for infrastructure upkeep, including sidewalk and pothole repairs, the maintenance of bridges and roadside mowing. There are currently around $4 million in backlogged sidewalk repairs in the county, and without supplementation, the fund would face a $3.3 million deficit by the end of 2022.
Burton’s solution was to increase the gas tax from 7-cents to 12-cents — a move that has already been made in more than half of Florida’s counties — but the increase would have only sustained the fund through 2026 before the account would again be in the red.
Commissioners didn’t bite, citing more electric vehicles and increased fuel efficiency, which they said would eventually render the tax obsolete.
“If we had honest brokers that were our partners in the legislature, we would be recommending a vehicle-miles traveled component within the taxing structure of our state because we have known for two decades that technology is changing,” said Commissioner Janet Long.
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Alas, that taxing structure doesn’t exist, and the county doesn’t have the authority to implement the tax on its own.
Instead, Burton proposed commissioners approved an additional millage of approximately $0.13 to support the transportation trust fund. In the tentative budget, initially approved on Sept. 9, that’s what commissioners did.
The designated millage will add $12 million to transportation this year. If maintained, officials say that’s enough to sustain the fund well into the 2030s — but only if commissioners vote to renew the added millage annually.
“This is a one year budget,” said commissioner Charlie Justice during the Sept. 9 meeting. “There’s no guarantee next year that the millage rate [will remain].”
The 2022 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.