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Pinellas Commission OKs tentative millage rates
Decisions made on spending $1.6 million in ‘extra’ reserve money
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Public Defender Bob Dillinger asks Pinellas County commissioners to fund two case manager positions for the foster care system during an Aug. 3 budget information session.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners approved tentative millage rates for the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget during an Aug. 3 budget information session.

No rate increases are proposed for the General Fund, which will remain at 5.2755 mills, or Emergency Medical Services at 0.9158 mills, or MSTU, which stays at 2.0857 mills, the same rate since FY 2008. Fire district millage rates also remain unchanged.

Commissioners did approve a bump in the Health Department millage rate, which is increasing from 0.0622 mills to 0.0835 mills to fund a program to put a full time nurse in every public school. They said no to a request from Feather Sound Community Services District for a millage rate increase due to concerns that the public had not had a chance to give its input.

The tentative millage rates will be sent to the property appraiser to calculate Truth in Millage notices, which will be mailed to property owners Aug. 21. Millage rates can be lowered before the final budget is approved on Sept. 26, but they cannot be increased.

Commissioners also made final budget decisions on several requests for additional funding. The extras will be paid for with the $1.6 million over the amount required by policy in the reserve fund.

Requests from the Clerk of the Court, including three full time positions at a cost of $350,000 and an additional board reporter for $75,000, were approved. Staff determined that a request for $75,000 to pay for an investment adviser could be paid for from increased interest earnings.

A request for $400,000 from the medical examiner to replace end-of-life lab equipment was approved, as was a request for $235,000 for computer software enhancements for the Justice system. The commission also said yes to $125,000 to pay for two crossover case managers, which Public Defender Bob Dillinger said were sorely needed.

Dillinger admitted that the state should be paying for the costs, but he said he needed help to slow down the 73 percent turnover rate of case managers in the foster care system and provide stability for the kids. He said some kids had a new case manager every month, which was a problem.

“They’re our children. We need to provide some stability for them,” he said.

Commissioners decided against using excess reserves to fund a request from Community Health Center of Pinellas for $476,000. The money would provide matching funds for a federal program that would net the organization $1.2 million.

Community Health plans to spend $260,000 for an Opioid Task Force, $611,000 to expand hours at Lealman health clinic and $370,000 to improve access to dental care in Clearwater and south St. Petersburg.

County staff suggested funding the $476,000 by shifting money in an existing health program. The idea is to make the first year a pilot and then evaluate its success before determining how best to pay for it in the future. Community Health has an opportunity to take advantage of the federal dollars for five years.

Commissioners were unable to fund a $3.6 million request from Neighborly Care Senior Services, although they did agree to an increase in money to help pay for Meals on Wheels. Neighborly had requested $2.4 million for Meals on Wheels, $800,000 for adult day care and $400,000 for transportation services.

According to the request, it would cost about $100,000 to pay for meals for 55 additional clients in the Meals for Wheels program, which provides five meals a week. The annual cost per client for meals only is $1,800.

County Administrator Mark Woodard said of the $1.6 million in excess reserves, commissioners had already approved spending all by $870,000, which was not enough to fulfill Neighborly Care’s request.

In FY 2016, the commission provided $196,000 to Neighborly and $96,000 was included in the current year budget. Another $96,000 was included in next year’s proposed budget.

Commissioner John Morroni said the demand for services in the senior community was continuing to go up. He said a county designated as “senior friendly” (by AARP) should be able to help provide those in need with one meal a day.

Morroni suggested increasing funding to the Meals on Wheels program to $200,000 “to make a little dent,” and the other commissioners agreed.

Commissioner Pat Gerard would like a discussion, including other providers of senior care, on the overall needs of the elderly. Neighborly Care has suggested created a dependent taxing district to provide a dedicated funding source in the future.

Commissioner Ken Welch agreed that a discussion is needed, saying the commission needed a strategic plan for the future. Commissioner Karen Seel asked staff to explore ways to provide funding for the elderly and homeless.

At this point in the decision-making, $680,000 in excess reserves remained. Bill Berger, director of the Office of Management and Budget pointed out that there “could be value in preserving some of the extra reserves.”

“Don’t feel obligated to spend it all,” he said.

However, Gerard brought up a funding need that wasn’t included in the day’s decision packages. She requested approval of $72,000 to pay for another staff position at Heritage Village. She talked about the importance of preserving the county’s history, which is the mission of Heritage Village, and the challenges with a limited staff of only three to four people.

She said Heritage Village had “incredible volunteers,” but more work could be done with an additional staff member. She also said the building that houses the archives was in need of improvement.

Berger said a new archive building was on the list of proposed projects for the next Penny for Pinellas should voters approved a 10-year extension during the Nov. 7 referendum election. He admitted that Heritage Village was one of the areas that had been cut the deepest during the Great Recession, creating a reliance on volunteers.

Commissioner Karen Seel said in a recent audit of Heritage Village a strong recommendation was made for a museum educator. The consensus was to fund the position, but to remember the possibility of budget cuts that might be necessary starting in FY 2020, if voters approve an additional homestead exemption in 2018.

Commissioners also heard a request from Rick Davis, executive director of Pinellas County Head Start, for money to pay for a digital library to help improve literacy and reading.

Seel said the program Davis was referencing was something already in use by the Juvenile Welfare Board. She said it made sense for JWB to expand its program to include Head Start and said she would see if she could make that happen.

“I would welcome the money from anywhere,” Davis said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.
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