CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners brought a challenging budgetary season to a close Tuesday as they approved a $3.8 billion budget for the 2024 fiscal year, along with a property tax rate unchanged from last year.
Though commissioners had rolled back the countywide tax rate in each of the past two years, the pressures the county faces this year left almost no wiggle room, officials reiterated during a public hearing Tuesday night. Along with inflation and insurance increases, the county is on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in unfunded legislative mandates. Foremost among them are increases to the state retirement system.
Commissioners approved a countywide property tax rate of $4.7398 per $1,000 of assessed taxable value, the same rate they set a year ago. Still, many property owners will pay higher taxes this year as property values continue to climb.
The overall budget marks an increase of about $400 million over the previous year’s, but much of that is from sources other than property taxes. Those sources include American Rescue Plan Act funding, settlements from lawsuits against opioid makers and distributors and increased tourist-tax revenue that will mostly go into reserves, County Administrator Barry Burton said.
The county’s general fund, which covers most of its operating expenses, is increasing by $54.7 million, Burton said, about $40 million of which will go to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office receives a higher portion of the county’s operating budget than any other agency or service. Much of that increase is set to go toward the state-mandated retirement fund increases and pay raises for deputies, who make less than officers at most municipal police departments in Pinellas County.
The budget also includes 4.5% pay raises for Pinellas County employees across the board. But Burton emphasized that county departments had tightened their belts, and that the county avoided budgeting for spending increases not tied to employee retention or state requirements.
Those assurances didn’t land well with the crowd of a few dozen people who showed up to watch the meeting. Several gave public comments, pleading for lower tax rates and saying inflation and higher bills had them fearful they’d be priced out of their homes.
Some commissioners did seek a last-minute reduction in the tax rate. Commissioner Brian Scott, working on his first budget after being elected last fall, moved to reduce the rate to $4.5898 per $1,000, which would have cost the county about $18 million. Commissioner Dave Eggers supported the idea, saying that even though it would have a negligible effect on taxpayers, it would send an important message.
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“This is not going to allow you to go spend a lot of money,” he said. “But it tells you that we hear you.”
But commissioners would have had to agree on where that $18 million would come from, and they couldn’t. Proposals to pull from county reserves were shot down, with Burton noting that attempting to use one-time money to pay for recurring expenses would put the county in a worse situation in the future, and Commissioner René Flowers saying healthy reserves are especially important in a place vulnerable to major storm damage.
Had the commission passed a tax rate reduction without specific instructions on what to cut, Burton said staff would have prepared a budget with proportional cuts across the board. That would have hit the sheriff’s office especially hard, which nobody had the appetite for.
The proposed general fund budget and tax rate ultimately passed 5-2, with Scott and Eggers voting against it. The overall budget passed unanimously.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters, who has pushed for tax reductions since she was elected in 2018, said she was frustrated that mandates from the state Legislature prevented the county from pursuing another rollback.
“I promise, we don’t want to raise these taxes,” she said. “Our hope is that next year we can be better, and next year the state won’t give us unfunded mandates.”