Empty chairs are scattered throughout the fifth floor Assembly Room of the Pinellas County Courthouse during the final budget hearing Sept. 18. In past budget years, the room has been packed.
Pinellas County Commission Chair John Morroni reads the “script” during the final public hearing on millage rates and budgets for fiscal year 2012-2013.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County is ready for its new budget season, starting Oct. 1. Commissioners approved millage rates and budgets for fiscal year 2012-2013 at a final public hearing Sept. 18.
Not all the approvals were unanimous, but long-time commissioners sustained their majority, pushing through the more-controversial increases for the general fund and emergency medical services.
Commissioner Norm Roche voted against almost every increase on the agenda. His motion to freeze all budgets and millage rates died for a lack of a second.
Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield joined with Roche in voting against many increases, including the rise in the general fund millage from 4.8108 mills to 5.0105 mills. Combined with the millage rate for the health department fund, which did not go up, the countywide millage for FY 2012-2013 is 5.0727, a 1.75 percent increase from the rolled-back rate.
A mill represents $1 of tax assessment per $1,000 of assessed property value.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said the tax increase was needed to pay for an unanticipated increase in Medicaid billing from the state. Bostock and Roche also voted against the final countywide general fund budget of nearly $470 million.
Bostock, Brickfield and Roche voted against the millage rate increase for the Emergency Medical Services Authority. The rate of 0.9158 mills is a 5.29 percent increase over the rolled-back rate of 0.8698 mills. The current year EMS millage rate is 0.8506. LaSala said the rate hike was due to the rising contract costs for ambulance and first responder service. Bostock and Roche also voted against the EMS budget of just over $107 million.
Millage rates and budgets that had no increase from the current year were passed unanimously for the Pinellas Planning Council, as well as the Municipal Service Taxing Unit and the MSTU Public Library Cooperative tax paid by unincorporated residents.
Commissioners approved, 5-2, an increase in the millage rate for the Palm Harbor Community Services District. Bostock and Brickfield voted no. LaSala said the increase was requested by officials with the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency. The rate went up from 0.4378 mills to 0.50, which is a 10.91 percent increase over the rolled-back rate. Bostock and Brickfield also voted against approval of the $1.677 million budget.
Commissioners unanimously approved a decrease in the millage rate for the Feather Sound Community Services District, as proposed by Commission Chair John Morroni. Property owners currently pay 0.5660 mills. The new rate is 0.50 mills, which is a 12.80 percent decrease over the rolled-back rate. The budget also received unanimous approval.
Commissioners gave unanimous approval to all millage rates and budgets for fire districts without an increase, including Belleair Bluffs, Gandy, High Point, Pinellas Park, Seminole, South Pasadena and Tarpon Springs.
Millage rates and budgets increased in Largo, Safety Harbor, Tierra Verde, Clearwater and Dunedin due to an increase in funding requests from those fire districts, according to LaSala. Roche voted against all the increases except Dunedin, which required unanimous approval. Roche voted against the increase during the first budget hearing on Sept. 6. He changed his vote after staff said if the money did not come through the millage rate increase, it would have to come from another source, such as the general fund budget.
The vote to approve the total final county budget was 5-2 with Bostock and Roche dissenting.
Limited comment from the public
Unlike past years, when the public packed the courthouse, overflowing into areas downstairs, the chairs were mostly empty at both budget hearings.
According to the Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, prior to the final public hearing, only five residents had communicated their support of the budgets and millage rates, and 39 had weighed in as opposed via phone calls, letters and emails.
At the first public hearing Sept. 6, five people attended. Three of those advocated saving money on public safety by making arrests for cannabis the lowest priority. John Chase returned Sept. 18 to repeat the message. Joe Paige attended both meetings to express his displeasure at the increases and the continued funding of programs, via county, state or federal dollars, that he says are not functions of the government. He gave an example of a program funded by the federal department of Health and Human Services with money passing through state Health and Human Services to county Health and Human Services to reduce obesity.
Tom Rask told the commission that more cuts could be made and said regardless of where the money comes from – federal, state or county government – the commission “should be careful how you spend it.” He said people couldn’t afford to pay more in the current economy.
Deb Caso also spoke against the increase in taxes and approval of $1,200 in extra pay for county employees. Her husband Tony Caso echoed her sentiments.
“It’s admirable to give county workers a few extra dollars. They could use it, just the same as everyone else,” he said. “People are struggling. This is an over-bloated budget … Raising taxes and increasing budgets is ridiculous.”