CLEARWATER – As advertised, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala presented the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 at a regular commission meeting July 9.
There were few surprises, as the commission and staff have been working together on the budget direction for the last several months. LaSala did present one new concept, the possibility of establishing a Service Level Continuation Account.
LaSala balanced the coming year’s nearly $1.76 billion budget using a countywide millage rate increase of 0.2650 mills for the general fund, pushing that millage up from 5.0105 to 5.2755. The millage rate for the unincorporated area (MSTU) would remain at 2.0867 mills.
The FY2014 budget is $33.2 million more than FY2013 and reflects a net increase in operating, capital, reserves and enterprise functions.
The proposed general fund budget, which pays for most operating costs, is $568,656 – a $10.2 million increase from the current year. LaSala said the increase was due to the legislature’s change in employer contributions to the Florida Retirement System and an employee pay increases needed to keep the county competitive in the labor market.
Most county employees have not had a pay raise for five years. The proposed budget includes a 2.8 percent across-the-board increase for all eligible employees.
LaSala also proposed a 0.0732 mill increase for the Emergency Services Fund, upping that millage rate to 0.9890.
Commissioner Janet Long asked about the increase for the EMS fund.
“Last time you said we would balance the budget with a portion of reserves,” she said.
She urged the commission to take action that would solve the rising cost of providing emergency medical services instead of continuing to raise the millage rate each year. A work session to discuss a consultant’s report on EMS changes is scheduled on July 19 and Aug. 1.
LaSala said changing the set 25 percent for EMS reserves would be a decision for the commission to make. He recommended leaving it unchanged. He said if the commission continued to use reserves to balance the budget, they would be gone by 2019.
Rate increases also are coming for the Gandy, Pinellas Park and Safety Harbor fire districts. Other changes include establishing the East Lake Library Services District with a millage rate of 0.25 mils.
LaSala advocates leaving the remaining $12 million in the Service Level Stabilization account and consideration of funding a Service Level Continuation Account to be used to sustain levels of service without having to make cuts or raise taxes during the next recession.
“A recession will occur,” he said. “That’s how our economy works.”
He said it would take discipline to continue following a strict budget and not grow programs as revenue returned to the county’s coffers.
“We would live within our means, exercise fiscal discipline and plan for the future,” he said.
He said it would take a “slight increase” in the millage of 0.2154 mills to “increase the likelihood and the ability to sustain a level of service that the citizens expect,” for the forecast period (10 years).
“It would put us in a position of great flexibility and require great discipline,” he said.
Commissioner Susan Latvala asked how LaSala planned to get the message out to the public about the Service Level Continuation Account.
“How will we inform them and convince them this is a good thing to do? No one wants new taxes,” she said.
LaSala said the “headlines” needed to be sustainability and a comparison of level of service to quality of life – “what’s in it for me.”
“This is something no other government in Florida has practiced,” he said.
“It’s about protecting the future generations, our children and our grandchildren,” Long added.
Seel brought up her idea of a dedicated millage for paving roads, which she would like to take from the MSTU millage. She asked LaSala to explore the notion before the budget work session.
“Honestly people expect certain things basic to qualify of life, and a paved road is one of them,” she said.
Commissioners can discuss the proposed budget and make changes through the public hearings in September. Budget work sessions are scheduled on July 16 and 30. Final proposed millage rates must be approved July 30 to go out with the Property Appraiser’s Truth in Millage notices scheduled to go out Aug. 19.
The final budget hearing is Sept. 17. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
To calculate the estimated amount of property tax, multiply the assessed value of the property, available at www.pcpao.org, by the millage rate and divide by 1,000. For example, the tax for a home assessed at $100,000 with a millage rate of 5.2755 would be $527.55 in FY2014 compared with $501.05 for the current year.