Last year, the Pinellas County Commission adopted a 2021 budget that prepared for the worst.
County officials kept the property tax rate the same as the year before, but with higher property values, they calculated $33.9 million in additional revenue. Most of that was squirreled away into the reserve fund as a cushion for the blow they thought would come from the coronavirus pandemic — a predicted 6 percent drop in property values in 2022.
Instead of a downturn, property values are expected to increase next year by 6.5 percent, prompting Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton to propose limiting the burden on taxpayers. In the $2.8 billion fiscal year 2022 budget he presented on Tuesday, Burton has proposed a lower property tax rate that will still bring in the same amount of revenue collected last year.
His proposed rate of $5.01 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value would bring in $471.4 million. That is $24 million less than if the county kept the rate of $5.27 per $1,000 that has been in place since 2014.
On average, Burton said, the proposed rate would make tax bills $53 lower than if the rate stayed the same as last year.
Although costs will grow due to expenditures like a body camera program for the Sheriff’s Office, more parks personnel and sidewalk repairs, he said the precautions taken last year to beef up the reserve fund will cover the effective tax decrease in 2022.
“As I project out five years under any scenario, we still have healthy reserves,” Burton said.
However, the county’s Transportation Trust Fund will have a $3.3 million deficit by the end of 2022. The fund pays for critical infrastructure upkeep like sidewalk and pothole repairs, maintenance of bridges and mowing right-of-way areas.
To replenish it, Burton is proposing a 5-cent increase in the gas tax that drivers pay at the pump. For people who drive 13,500 miles a year in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, that means $27 more per year.
The commission will vote on the tax rate on Aug. 3, after which officials can lower, but not increase, the rate. The commission will vote on whether to adopt the gas tax increase on Aug. 24.
Separate votes on the budget are scheduled for Sept. 9 and Sept. 21.
Burton has proposed using $4 million in general fund dollars to address the backlog of sidewalk repairs that have piled up due to the lack of transportation trust fund monies. Over the past five years, Pinellas County has doled out nearly half a million dollars in settlements for three dozen trips and falls on broken sidewalks, according to county attorney Jewel White.
About 40 percent of the gas tax collected comes from visiting tourists. The 5-cent increase would raise total gas taxes in Pinellas County to 12 cents, the maximum allowed by state law and the same amount levied by Hernando, Manatee and Pasco counties.
However, County Commissioner Janet Long raised concerns about the messaging to residents by raising the gas tax while decreasing the property tax. She also said she worries about rolling back the property tax rate and foregoing $24 million in tax revenue ahead of a hurricane season with 20 storms predicted for the area.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Long said.
The proposed budget also includes rolling back the Health Department tax rate to $0.07 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value, which would bring in $589,000 less than if the county maintains the same rate as 2021.
Commissioner Rene Flowers raised concerns about this change, given the uncertainty still surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“I just want to make sure they have all the resources that they need,” Flowers said. “That just gives me a little scare.”