Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala’s budget for fiscal year 2013, as presented to Pinellas County Commissioners July 10, includes proposed millage rate increases for the general fund as well as Emergency Medical Services, six fire districts and Palm Harbor Recreation and Library District.
CLEARWATER – County Administrator Bob LaSala’s budget for fiscal year 2013, includes proposed millage rate increases for the general fund as well as Emergency Medical Services, six fire districts and Palm Harbor Recreation and Library District.
LaSala prefaced his July 10 budget presentation with talk about the uncertainty of economic conditions in the coming years and the steps taken to preserve the county’s financial stability. He said his budget was “a story” about a diverse business that was prioritizing and managing its business lines to address current fiscal issues.
He talked about decisions made since the economic downturn began in 2008 and the adjustments made over time to address fewer dollars coming in to pay for county government. He cautioned against going over the tipping point, which he believes “we are close to or at that point.”
“We can’t respond in an emergency as quickly,” he said.
He gave an example of clean up in the county parks after Tropical Storm Debby. Since budget cuts necessitated the use of roving park staff, instead of dedicated park staff, parks were cleaned up one-at-a-time as opposed to having work ongoing in all of them simultaneously.
He said workplace morale was another problem due to “stagnant salaries, ongoing uncertainty and increased workloads.” He budget doesn’t propose a pay raise for county employees until FY 2016.
“Service delivery would be crippled by additional (budget) reductions,” he told the commission.
From 2007 to 2012, Constitutional Officers and independent agencies have lost 730 positions, or 19 percent of their combined workforce, and now have the lowest position count since 1991.
Departments governed by the Board of County Commissioners have decreased by 975 positions or 35 percent and now has the lowest position count since 1985.
The BCC has reduced its budget by more than $100 million, almost 39 percent; the Sheriff’s Office budget is down $72.5 million, or almost 27 percent; the remaining Constitutional Officers’ have cut $14.4 million from their collective budgets, or 26 percent; and independent agencies have cut $6.6 million, or 27 percent.
Part of LaSala’s budget balancing strategy has been the funding of a Service Level Stabilization Account, which was established to cover potential future shortfalls in the general fund. The balance of the fund is $28.6 million, which represents money saved by making reductions over the amount needed to balance the budget in the years 2010 through 2012. To date, none of the money has been spent.
LaSala recommends beginning to draw down the SLSA in 2013, along with limiting growth and continuing to streamline operations and increase efficiencies. However, in part due to the unfunded mandate from the state for Medicaid, revenue coming in to the general fund budget is expected to be $24.1 million less than expected revenue. The long-term shortfall is projected at $30 to 40 million.
The numbers don’t include the potential for a return to paying full cost of employees’ pensions.
LaSala says the time has come to increase the countywide millage rate. He recommends an increase of 0.25 mills, primarily to pay for Medicaid.
His budget includes no change in the millage rate for the Municipal Services Taxing Unit, which is paid by the 270,000 residents who live in unincorporated areas of Pinellas. The Sheriff’s budget makes up 75 percent of MSTU expenditures.
Another problem area is the Emergency Medical Services Fund. LaSala proposes balancing the EMS budget using a 21.7 percent increase in the millage rate, going from 0.8506 to 1.0355. He said additional millage rate increases would be necessary in the future, if commissioners didn’t find a way to decreases expenses. Due to a millage cap of 1.5 mills, other sources of revenue for EMS might be needed in the future, he said.
Funding for the fire districts continues to be a challenge. Six of 12 fire districts have proposed millage rate increases in 2013, including Clearwater, Dunedin, Largo, Safety Harbor, Tierra Verde and South Pasadena.
Water and sewer funds will remain in balance, LaSala said, as long as proposed rate increases go into effect as scheduled.
LaSala’s budget also includes a 14.2 percent increase for the Palm Harbor Recreation and Library District, which was requested by the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency. The increase restores the maximum millage rate that was rolled back due to state law in fiscal year 2008.
LaSala went over a number of additional budget requests not included in his budget, including $655,000 for code enforcement, $135,000 for watershed management monitoring, $149,000 for OPUS staffing for the Clerk of the Circuit Court, $250,000 for OPUS staff for Business Technology Services, $78,000 for wide area network redundancy requested by BTS, and $470,000 from BTS for Wi-Fi connectivity; $840,000 for health and human services needs and others.
Commissioners are expected to begin budget discussions on July 17. Proposed millage rates are set for tentative approval on July 26 in time to go out with the Property Appraiser’s TRIM notices on Aug. 20. Once the tentative millage rates are approved, they cannot be increased; however, they can be lowered.
The first public budget hearing is Sept. 6 with the final hearing to approve millage rates and budgets scheduled on Sept. 18. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.