Pinellas County’s final $2.6 billion budget prioritizes the rainy day fund

The Pinellas County Commission passed its final 2021 budget and tax rate on Tuesday, along with a beefed up reserve fund.
The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday adopted the final 2021 budget and tax rate in a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Kathleen Peters voting no.
The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday adopted the final 2021 budget and tax rate in a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Kathleen Peters voting no. [ Google Earth ]
Published Sept. 23, 2020

When Pinellas County officials crafted the 2021 budget, they committed to beefing up the reserve fund used for unexpected costs given the yet-to-be-known impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

By keeping the tax rate unchanged for the eighth year in a row, the county will collect $33.9 million more in property taxes than last year due to the increase in property values — but most of the extra revenue will be going into reserves.

With additional revenue from property taxes, relief related to Hurricane Irma, leftover funds from 2019 and other sources, the reserve fund will reach $165 million, about 57 percent larger than 2020.

“We focused on building reserves as a result of the pandemic and making sure that we could anticipate a two-year budget cycle that allows us to continue to provide services without having to layoff staff,” county administrator Barry Burton said.

The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday voted 6-1 to adopt the final tax rate and $2.6 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, with Commissioner Kathleen Peters voting no. Her lone dissent was due to the tax increase residents will feel, even with the same rate as last year, she said.

The 2021 tax rate will be the same since 2014: $5.27 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. But because property values have increased, that is 5.71 percent higher than the level the county could have charged in order to collect the same amount in taxes as last year. The state considers this a tax increase.

“They feel they should have your money to keep in the bank instead of you keeping your money to take care of yourself and your family,” Peters wrote in a Facebook post following the vote. “This during a pandemic that provided us one of the highest unemployment rates Pinellas has ever seen.”

During their discussion of the budget and tax rate, her colleagues defended their votes.

“This budget is so responsible,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “It looks forward to next year and the hit that we’re going to take in property taxes and it sets aside money for that.”

Property countywide reached $91.67 billion in taxable value in 2020, a 7.7 percent increase over 2019. But because the property appraiser values real estate each January, any declines related to this year’s pandemic will not be confirmed until next year. In June, Property Appraiser Mike Twitty projected property values to see a 6 percent decrease in 2022 with a slow recovery.

In a later interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Twitty said those projections are fluid, as the depth of the pandemic and its impact on the economy evolves.