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No millage increases for Pinellas County
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard presents his budget proposal from fiscal year 2014-15 July 15.
CLEARWATER – A sense of optimism filled the fifth floor assembly room of the County Courthouse in Clearwater July 15 as Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard presented his budget proposal from fiscal year 2014-15.

Unlike past years, which left a feeling of gloom and doom, Woodard’s presentation was short and filled with positive news – including that there will be no millage increases for the general fund, unincorporated county or emergency medical services.

“Millage rates are unchanged,” Woodard said.

Staff recommends that the general fund millage rate remain at 5.2755 mills; the Municipal Services Taxing Unit rate stay at 2.0857 mills, the same since 2008; and the rate for emergency medical services continues at 0.9158 mills.

The millage rate for Dunedin Fire District will go down from 3.5525 to 2.9222 due to completion of the new fire station. Residents of East Lake will pay a new 0.25 mill tax to fund its recreation services district.

The FY 2015 proposed budget is just over $1.92 billion - an 8.4 percent increase over the revised FY 2014 budget.

Enterprise capital projects are up $87.9 million, or 44 percent. General fund spending is up 14.4 million, or 2.5 percent. Woodard pointed out that excluding enterprise projects drops the budget increase over the current year to only 3.9 percent.

Nearly $1.25 billion is budgeted for departments that report to the county administrator, an increase of $128.2 million, or 11.4 percent, over 2014. The money pays for functions ranging from the airport to solid waste, animal services to EMS and parks to public works. The $1.25 billion represents 64.9 percent of the total budget.

Close to $315 million, or 16 percent of the total, will be doled out to the Constitutional Officers. The budgeted amount is an increase of $33.3 million from the current year. Woodard said the majority of the money – $272 million, or 85.5 percent - will go to the Sheriff’s Office.

Lastly, a group of “other agencies” will get a share of nearly $360 million – a decrease of $12.5 million over the current year. This category includes functions ranging from internal service funds such as Business Technology Services and Risk Management to Human Resources, Court Support, including the Public Defender, State Attorney and Judiciary, as well as library services and recreation.

Staffing levels going up

After years of staffing cuts, FY 2015 will bring a modest increase in staffing with the most coming from a change in operations at the new 911 center. An increase of 13.6 full time positions that formerly were part of the Sheriff’s budget will now be included at the county level. The 911 center in the new Public Safety Center should be operational by July 23.

The budget calls for paychecks to go out to 5,042.4 employees next year. Of that number, 1,916.9 will report to the county administrator. Woodard said county staff would be comparable to 1987 levels.

Constitutional Officers will employ 2,863.6 – an increase of 4.1; court services, 40.3, a decrease of 2; and independent agencies will have 221.6 on the payroll, an increase of 0.4.

Reasons for optimism

Woodard said the budget proposal reflected a number of positive signs. Property values are improving, up 6.5 percent from the current year. The county is raking in record-setting bed tax collections, up 13 percent so far this year. St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport is reporting record-setting passenger traffic, up 23 percent.

The Development Review Department has experienced a 160 percent increase in submissions of site plans. Building permits and inspections are up by 5 to 10 percent month-over-month for the past two years. Sales tax collections have increased by 4 percent compared to 2013.

“There is great cause for optimism,” Woodard said. “We know there are challenges. There will always be challenges. But one thing I know about this organization is that we face our challenges and we deal with them.”

One way staff is dealing is by “doing things,” he said.

“We’ve unleashed our staff,” he said.

Staff is now engaging citizens in ways that have never been done before, he added. Work is ongoing to repair and strengthen partnerships with municipalities, EMS providers, healthy community partners, veterans services advocates and clients, Constitutional Officers and the business community.

Woodard announced that $663,000 had been budgeted for Veterans Services – the most ever. More money also was allocated for expansion of international trade.

“Relationships are key,” he said.

Woodard also is committed to “growing our own talent” and promoting from within.

“We’re investing in our own people,” he said. “We need to embrace people with talent and passion or they will leave.”

Next steps

Commissioners will discuss the proposed budget during a work session on July 22 and will decide then whether to cancel a tentative date for another discussion on July 31. They must notify the property appraiser of the tentative millage rates for the Truth in Millage statements by Aug. 4. TRIM notices will be mailed Aug. 22.

The first public hearing is scheduled on Sept. 11 with the final, deciding hearing on Sept. 23. Fiscal year 2015 begins Oct. 1.

For a complete look at the budget and budget presentations, visit www.p­inell­ascou­nty.o­rg/bu­dget/­defau­lt.ht­m.

Mission statement

Woodard began his presentation by telling commissioners that he had reinstated a mission statement adopted by the county in the 1980s that reaffirms the commitment to “progressive public policy, superior public service, courteous public contact, judicious exercise of authority and responsible management of public resources.”

The vision is “to be the standard for public service in America,” he said.
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