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Pinellas County
Questions answered at eTownHall meeting
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County hosted an eTownHall for citizens to ask questions about the fiscal year 2015 budget April 9 at the Digitorium on the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College. From left, moderator Mark Wilson, news anchor at Fox 13, County Administrator Bob LaSala, and Commissioners Norm Roche, Janet Long, John Morroni, Susan Latvala, Ken Welch and Chair Karen Seel.
SEMINOLE – Pinellas County citizens tweeted, blogged, phoned and asked questions in person during the FY 2015 Budget eTownHall meeting April 9 in the Digitorium on the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College.

Communications officials report that about 250 people logged on to the blog and another 50 attended the hour-long live event. More than 65,000 received phone calls and an untold number watched the event streamed live on the county’s website, pinellascounty.org, and on PCCTV.

Mark Wilson, news anchor at Fox 13, moderated. County Administrator Bob LaSala answered questions from the public, as did all the commissioners, except Charlie Justice, who was sick.

Wilson began the evening talking about results from a recent citizen’s survey that showed traffic and transit among top concerns. Several eTownHall participants asked transit-related questions.

One wanted to know if transit was already part of the Pinellas for Pinellas program. Welch explained that Penny for Pinellas was a separate voter-approved tax that pays for capital improvement projects.

Currently, PSTA receives its funding from ad valorem (property taxes). A referendum in November will allow voters to decide to change the method of funding to a 1 percent sales tax devoted entirely to transit needs.

“This is a vitally important initiative in our county, something we’ve talked about since the 1970s,” said Commissioner Janet Long.

Long said without transit improvements, the economy would become stagnant.

“It’s 2014. All major metro areas have a way for people to get from the airport to the beach with a transportation option,” she said. “We don’t have it.”

Commissioner Chair Karen Seel explained that no money is currently available to fund a light rail system, but if the Greenlight Pinellas tax initiative were approved, it would be something coming in the future. “Greenlight Pinellas is a transportation plan to move transit forward in Pinellas,” said Commissioner Ken Welch.

The first part of the plan improves bus services – more flex routes and trolley services, evening services and more. The second part is light rail, which will come after.

He answered a question as to why the rail couldn’t be done by a private company by saying that a public-private partnership could be possible.

Commissioner Susan Latvala told a caller that no county government money is spent to fund Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. She said PSTA had a separate budget and revenue stream. County tax money is not spent on PSTA and PSTA money is not spent on county government services.

She pointed out that four commissioners sat of the PSTA board and helped oversee how the authority’s money was spent.

Seel said the county was working on an interlocal agreement with PSTA that would ensure sales tax revenue would be spent as outlined in the Greenlight plan, should voters approve the 1 percent tax. The sales tax money collected would be passed through the county to PSTA.

Budget questions

LaSala answered questions about the FY 2015 budget. He said although the budget was balanced, it would take “great care to keep it that way.”

He explained that costs are continuing to rise faster than revenues.

“We’re looking for ways to be more efficient,” he said.

One example is construction of a new chiller plant that should be finished in 2015. LaSala said it would help save on air conditioning costs.

He recently presented an update to the 10-year budget forecast that showed challenges ahead for the future.

“Strategic planning is one of the things I’m most proud of,” said Commissioner Norm Roche, adding that it allowed more flexibility to adjust the budget year to year. He also commented on the survey.

“The survey is important,” he said. “It lets us know how we’re doing. Ninety percent say we’re meeting or exceeding service levels.”

Commissioner John Morroni agreed that the survey was important, but said the best feedback came from being out in the community. He pointed out that the survey involved only 800 people, while he attended a recent FAST (Faith and Action in Strength Together) with about 3,000 people in attendance.

“People are not afraid to tell you what they think,” he said.

A blogger asked if eliminating the Save Our Homes property tax exemption would give the county enough money to pay for services. Long explained that Save Our Homes was a state law, put into place after voters approved a constitutional amendment. She said voters would have to approve another amendment rescinding Save Our Homes, which she said was unlikely.

Another participant asked about the importance of the property appraiser on the budget process.

“The property appraiser develops objective evaluative data based on tax values,” LaSala said.

The values are used to develop budget strategies. He said early estimates showed a 3 percent growth in property tax values and could come in higher, as much as 4 or 5 percent.

“Property values are an important part of our revenue base,” he said.

A blogger asked if the $5 fee to park in county parks with beach access was working to provide more money.

“Yes,” said Latvala. “It has kept us from having to cut staff and be able to do maintenance and landscaping.”

She said there were no plans to increase the fee.

Roche said some people liked that less mowing was being done in the parks, allowing areas to become naturalized again.

Another caller asked about funding for Emergency Medical Services and wanted to know if the commission was considering consolidation.

Welch explained that due to the state charter governing EMS, the commission did not have the authority to consolidate.

“Consolidation, in my opinion, needs to happen,” he said. “We don’t need 19 different districts.”

Meanwhile, county staff is working of saving money through enhancements to the 911 system and other measures, he said.

“It’s important for consumers to recognize that we have the very best fire and EMS in the U.S.,” Long said. “But it is also the most expensive. We need to find other ways to do it. But we have to be sensitive to the public’s safety and wellbeing.”

She said change was difficult due to the political differences of those involved.

“So many people are resisting change,” she said, adding that she had been married to a firefighter, retired now, for 37 years, so she understood the issue.

“I’ve been a strong proponent of consolidation for years,” Roche said, adding any change in the EMS system should be done with great care.

He said there had been a lot of talk about regional consolidation and collaboration in recent years.

“We need to make sensible consolidation within our own borders.”

Welch answered the question about possible decrease in EMS millage, saying it could not go down as long as the cost to provide service continued to increase.

On the question about abandoned houses in disrepair around the county, LaSala said the commission had approved adding three positions for code enforcement for this year.

“But, we’re mostly complaint driven,” he said.

And it takes time to make changes, as after notice is served about a problem, people have to be given a chance to resolve the issue.

Morroni said the county was inadequate in its code enforcement and talked about an increase in the number of complaints.

Accomplishments

A caller asked the panel about the county’s accomplishments. Seel talked about the county’s growth and jobs.

“We had the best year ever in tourism bringing in over $31 million in bed tax revenue,” she said. “We’re among the top counties in the state for tourism.”

She said the county was bringing in more high paying jobs and had retained more than 1,000 jobs last year.

Morroni added that tourists had spent $5.5 billion in Pinellas last year. More than one million passengers used the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

“We’re doing gangbusters right now,” he said.

Long said with more carriers and Allegiant Air adding routes, even more people would be coming to the county for business and to visit.

“They are paying a large percentage of Penny for Pinellas that we don’t have to pay,” she said.

Business growth

Roche answered a question about the importance of business growth.

“That’s one of the main challenges right now,” he said.

He said the average household income in the county was between $40,000 and $45,000, which causes concerns about the financial stress level on the population. He said most couldn’t afford more taxes or fees.

But Pinellas is a built-out county, meaning there isn’t room to bring in large companies. He said officials needed to revision its business community for the future.

“We’ve got to think different within the space we have,” he said.

Long said improved transportation options would help create new jobs and business growth along future rail corridors.

Seel also fielded a question about construction on U.S. 19 and the hardship it was causing for businesses. She said that thanks to federal money and support from the Florida Department of Transportation, U.S. 19 projects had been fast tracked, meaning they can be completed 25 years ahead of schedule. She said extra money was made available to offer contractors incentives to finish the work sooner.

She added that the Gulf-to-Bay span should be opening soon, which will give people an idea of what things will be like when ongoing construction is completed.

Other questions

Another caller asked about volunteer opportunities within county government.

LaSala said volunteers were very important, providing 150,000 hours of service, equivalent to $5 million in service in a variety of capacities.

“They are doing working we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” he said.

Seel answered the question about the future of the Waste to Energy plant. She said the contract with Duke Energy continues until 2024.

“Duke must buy the electricity we produce by burning trash,” she said.

She said the plant burned 1.5 tons of trash last year. Morroni added that Pinellas had recycled 1 million tons. Seel said due to the Waste to Energy plant, the county had not raised its tipping fee at the dump since 1985.

LaSala added that tipping fees provide revenue for a renewal fund that paid for repairs, replacement and maintenance at the plant.

Several questions came in about schools. Latvala explained that county government had nothing to do with schools.

“They elect their own board and have their own taxes,” she said.

Long, who sits on the Homeless Leadership Council, answered the question about what is being done about homelessness in Pinellas. She said many agencies were working together to assist, especially the fastest growing population of homeless – families with children.

“We’re trying to find a solution to get people into a program that can help them rise out of poverty so they can care for themselves,” she said.

She said some homelessness is tied to mental health issues as well as alcohol and drug abuse. She said many veterans were homeless, which is being addressed by the Veteran’s Administration and VA hospitals.

“They’re doing their best to provide for them,” she said.

The final question asked if the county would be willing to pay if the Tampa Bay Rays said they wanted a new stadium in the Gateway area.

Roche said the days of the taxpayer building stadiums was over. He said he didn’t see Pinellas County citizens with an average household income of $43,000 paying for a new stadium.

Latvala pointed out that the stadium would be paid for with bed tax money, which is mostly paid by tourists.

“If the opportunity comes up, there will be a public discussion and we will make the best decision,” she said.
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