The fund Pinellas County uses to pay for infrastructure upkeep like sidewalk and pothole repairs, maintenance of bridges, and mowing right-of-ways will hit a $3.3 million deficit next year.
But the problem will not be solved by raising the gas tax as county administrator Barry Burton originally suggested in June when he presented the proposed 2022 budget.
The County Commission on Tuesday agreed to not advance a 5-cent increase in the tax drivers pay at the pump, which would have generated $9.3 million needed to maintain services. The shortfall could instead be made up through the general fund, meaning residents will likely still see a decrease in the 2022 property tax rate, just not as much as Burton originally proposed.
“We have people that have lost their jobs, people that can’t pay their mortgage, can’t pay their rent, so the message cannot be to raise taxes this year, it just can’t be,” commission chairperson Dave Eggers said.
The Transportation Trust Fund deficit will require a permanent solution that should be figured out instead of “kicking the can down the road,” with a tax increase that would have only made up projected shortfalls for a few years anyway, commissioner Karen Seel said.
In June, Burton proposed the gas tax increase along with a property tax rate of $5.01 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value, which is lower than last year but would still bring in the same amount of revenue due to the increase in property values.
He proposed the lower property tax rate after keeping the tax rate unchanged in 2021, which due to higher property values, resulted in $33.9 million in additional revenue that was saved to reserves.
Burton said Tuesday that even without the gas tax increase, the county could still adopt a property tax rate that brings in the same revenue as last year but does not cause residents to pay more taxes. That exact figure was not agreed upon Tuesday, because staff will have to run models to show a variety of outcomes that still covers the transportation fund deficit.
Burton’s original tax rate would result in an average tax bill savings of $45.25, said budget director Bill Berger.
State law required the county to set the property tax rate by Tuesday, which can be lowered but not increased when the commission adopts the budget during two votes on Sept. 9 and Sept. 21.
That will leave discussions to the future on how to resolve the long-term problem with the transportation fund, a debate that has raged for more than a decade.