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No millage rate hikes proposed in county’s budget forecast
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard talks about the budget forecast during the Commission’s Feb. 7.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County staff presented the budget forecast for fiscal years 2018-2023 Feb. 7 as a preface to beginning work on next year’s budget.

This is the eighth year that staff has undergone this exercise to allow the commission to make decisions based on information about long-term financial sustainability and have an understanding of the impact today’s decisions have on the future.

Thus far, staff has given no indication that a millage rate increase will be needed to balance next year’s budget.

The forecast shows a positive trend with the national economy expected to grow by 2.2 percent to 2.4 percent annually throughout the six years of the forecast. The state’s economy is expected to improve with strong growth in population, tourism and housing. Staff anticipates that the county’s economy also will continue to improve

Tourism is a bright spot with more than 5.6 million overnight visitors in FY 2016 and record-setting bed tax collections for five consecutive years. The county took in nearly $48.2 million in bed tax last year - thanks in part to a 1-cent increase in the tax rate. The economic impact of the local tourism industry was $8.4 billion. The sale of single-family homes is up 1.8 percent and the median sales price is up 17.1 percent. Property values also are on the rise and expected to continue to increase.

The forecast includes 10 key funds: general, emergency medical services, tourist development, transportation trust, surface water, airport, solid waste, water, sewer and capital projects, which are mostly funded by the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent tax.

Staff reports that all of the funds are balanced through the forecast period except the surface water fund. The county implemented a surface water fee for unincorporated areas in 2014. At the current rate of spending, the fund’s reserves will be gone by FY 2023. Staff is looking at ways to adjust the level of service to match the available funding.

The commission discussed changing the way the fee is accessed as has been requested by some property owners. Currently, the county uses a three-tier system, which County Administrator Mark Woodard said was the recommendation of a consultant and based on the equity method.

He said Hillsborough and Pasco counties use a flat rate, as do most cities. Tampa and Sarasota County uses a three-tier system.

He said the county could create more tiers, which has been requested, which would create more equity.

“But where should it end,” he asked.

He said if the commission chose to increase the tiers from three to five, the fee for 22,000 parcels would go down; however, the fee would go up for 27,000 parcels.

Woodard told the commission if a change was going to be made for next year, staff needed to know now.

Commission Chair Janet Long said the current policy seemed "pretty stable.” Commissioner John Morroni agreed.

Rahim Harji, the county’s Public Works director, said staff could do more research on the five-tier method if the commission wanted.

Woodard advised the commission to give the three-tier method more time, pointing out that the county was still in the “infancy” with charging a fee in the unincorporated areas. Many of the county’s municipalities have been charging a fee for many years.

He pointed out that staff had made adjustments in how the assessments were done, especially in mobile home parks.

“We can come back later and do a true-up and fine tune” to get stability in the system, he said.

The commission agreed.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County reporter. She can be reached at webmaster@tbnweekly.com.

Corrected date of the meeting
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