The economy may be picking up, but for many Pinellas County residents, the clouds have not yet lifted. County commissioners need to think long and hard before they rush to embrace a budget plan that could raise property tax rates by 9.5 percent next year, with nearly half of it earmarked for the county's savings account. County administrator Bob LaSala believes its time for the county to start planning for the next recession, but county commissioners need to consider the broader view of what's best for the taxpayer, not just for county coffers.
No one in local government has had an easy time of it in the past five years. LaSala, in giving his presentation this week to the commission, highlighted just how hard it has been in Pinellas County. Since 2007, the county has cut nearly 1,700 jobs, and property tax receipts are down 35 percent due to declines in property values. Even the current level of service is possible only because the county for the past three years has been spending some of the significant reserves it had built up.
The county had planned to spend the final $10 million from reserves to cover next year's anticipated shortfall of $9.3 million. But on Tuesday, LaSala proposed raising the county's tax rate for the second year in a row to avoid that reserve spending but also to sock away some more money, cover some unanticipated retirement costs forced by the Legislature and give pay raises, the first in four years.
LaSala proposed raising the tax rate about 5 percent to cover additional operating costs without dipping into reserves. But he proposed another 4 percent increase to flow to reserves in anticipation of a future recession. The combined impact: The county's property tax millage rate would grow from $5.01 per $1,000 taxable property value to $5.49.
And if that isn't enough: The continued inability of county and local fire officials to agree on how to cut costs in the county's emergency medical services system means the EMS property tax rate could also climb 8 percent next year — the third increase in as many years.
It's too much. There is no doubt that county government has been battered and bruised in recent years. And it's true that the shrewd investments of past commissions in compiling reserves have kept recent budgets from being more painful. But the question is always timing.
If LaSala's job is to find a good plan for government, then commissioners' job over the next two months is to pass a budget that balances that need with what is also good for citizens in fiscal year 2014. The economic cloud for many families in Pinellas hasn't fully parted, and a county government that takes more money out of their pockets to simply stash in reserves won't be helping them.