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Pinellas constitutional officers make budget requests
Presentations include updates on ongoing and future plans
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Property Appraiser Mike Twitty goes over some of the potential impacts of an additional $25,000 homestead exemption during the May 11 budget information session.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners heard 11 budget presentations for fiscal year 2018, including the majority of constitutional officers as well as few other departments, during a May 11 information session.

Some of the news was good and some caused great concern. The best news came from the Elections office and the worst from the Property Appraiser.

The budget request for the Supervisor of Elections is just over $7.5 million, which is less than the budget target the department was instructed to meet by the Office of Budget and Management. Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark took the opportunity to share some of the successes of her office, including that 2016 had been a “remarkable election year in a lot of ways.”

For the November election, the county had the highest voter turnout in the state and the nation. The national rate was 60 percent, the state’s was 72 percent and Pinellas County’s was 77 percent. Turnout for the August primary election was the highest since 2004 and turnout for the March Presidential Primary was the highest since 1976.

She said since 2004, the voter turnout among ages 18-30 has been 10 points higher than the national average. She attributed that success to her office’s educational program in the schools that encourages high school seniors to register and vote.

As of Dec. 20, 2016, the Elections Office has a new responsibility, per a federal mandate, to make ballots and elections materials available in English and Spanish. The latest census showed that 5 percent of the county’s population speaks Spanish as their primary language.

Clark said the new rule adds about $150,000 to the cost of elections mostly due to the number of ballot cards that will be required, especially in elections with charter and constitutional amendments. Precincts with high numbers of Spanish-speaking voters must be staffed with bilingual poll workers.

Clark answered a question about President Donald Trump’s executive order to begin an investigation on voter fraud, which she termed as “simply politics.” She said voting systems were closed systems, which cannot be hacked. She is concerned that the investigation could discourage some from voting and have “profound implications.”

The Property Appraiser’s Office budget request of just over $13 million is $407 under the budget target. Property Appraiser Mike Twitty said 91 percent of his budget was personnel costs. He has 130 positions, 32 less than the staffing levels in 2006.

He provided an update on the potential impact of an additional homestead exemption, which voters will decide on in 2018. If approved, some homeowners would become eligible to claim the extra exemption starting Jan. 1, 2019. The affect to budgets that rely on property taxes would take place for fiscal year 2020. Estimates show the third exemption could cost county government almost $37 million.

In Pinellas, 58 percent of households take advantage of homestead exemptions now. Twitty said 100 percent of homes lived in by their owners could take advantage of the first $25,000 exemption, with 86 percent eligible for the second $25,000, but only 55 percent would be eligible for the third, if approved by voters, because only homes with assessed values higher than $100,000 would qualify. In addition, homesteaded homeowners will not receive the full benefit of the third $25,000 exemption unless their assessed value is at least $125,000.

The largest share of the county’s general fund goes to the sheriff’s office. If the third exemption were approved, Sheriff’s Bob Gualtieri estimates as many as 166 deputies would have to be eliminated. Budget Director Bill Berger said a .4 mil increase would be needed to make up the lost revenue.

“Less than half the people would benefit [from the exemption], but all would feel the impact in terms of service level,” he said.

Commission Chair Janet Long said the legislators don’t understand. She said they believe they are helping the poor.

“This is no help for the poor. They won’t be eligible,” she said. “They will lose many benefits or suffer millage increases.”

District 6 Medical Examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin also delivered some bad news, including a request for an additional $400,000 to buy a liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer to improve drug testing and give his staff the ability to analyze data faster. Work that is now down by outside labs would be done in-house with the new equipment.

Without the purchase of the new equipment, Thogmartin’s budget request is $113,040 over the budget target most due to inflation. The medical examiner’s office is experiencing a 100 percent increase in analyzing DNA for sexual assaults, due to the changes in state law. In addition, toxicology analyses for opioids have increased.

Thogmartin said his workload in 2016 was the highest ever and that trend was continuing this year. Part of the cause is the uptick in the use of opioids and the deadly drug fentanyl and counterfeit drugs that he says are cheaper than heroin.

The problem is the drugs that are killing people can’t be detected by available equipment, he said. Samples have to be sent out to a lab in Pennsylvania with a long processing time. He said his staff was “operating in the blind,” a problem that could be remedied with the new equipment.

Another department with a budget request over the target is the Clerk of the Court, which needs about $2.28 million more to pay for additional staffing and consulting services among other things. Human Resources also requested a budget increase for additional staffing at an annual recurring cost of $280,600.

Several met their budget targets, including the Health Department with a request of $4.171 million; the Office of Human Rights at $1.61 million; and the judiciary at $4.216 million.

Some are requesting budgets less than in the target, including court support, state attorney’s office and the public defender.

Budget information sessions are scheduled through August. The property appraiser must be notified of the tentative millage rate by Aug. 4. Public hearings are scheduled on Sept. 14 and Sept. 26. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1. For more information, visit www.p­inell­ascou­nty.o­rg/bu­dget.

Suzette Porter is Tampa Bay Newspapers Pinellas County Editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Revised to clarify information about the potential third homestead exemption.
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