Pinellas Commission rejects fuel tax hike: Millage rate rollback will be less

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton assures commissioners Aug. 3 that enough money would be available with a smaller roll back in the general fund millage rate to make up the deficit in the transportation trust fund if they decided against raising the local fuel option tax.

LARGO — Pinellas County Commissioners said nay Aug. 3 to a plan by staff to increase the local option fuel tax to make up a $3.3 million deficit in the transportation trust fund.

The consensus was that it made no sense to impose a higher fuel tax in the same year they rolled back the general fund millage rate for property taxes. Instead, County Administrator Barry Burton and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Bill Berger will go back and calculate a smaller decrease in the fiscal year 2022 millage rate to cover the gap between revenues and expenditures for the ailing trust fund.

Commission Chair Dave Eggers said he had no interest in increasing the local option fuel tax.

“We have people that have lost their jobs, people that can’t pay their rent, can’t pay their mortgage, so the message cannot be to raise taxes this year, it just can’t be,” Eggers said.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters agreed, saying residents and business had gone through so much adversity.

“We have to give something back … our citizens deserve it and we should give it to them,” she said.

Commissioner Karen Seel pointed out that increasing the gas tax wouldn’t solve the problem permanently. She said it was just “kicking the can down the road.” She also said there was no way to guarantee that the gas tax would bring in the amount of revenue needed especially with more electric cars on the road.

Commissioner Pat Gerard agreed, adding that the fuel tax was a “disappearing source of revenue.”

For years, staff has been struggling to keep the trust fund afloat amid a reduced revenue stream and increased costs. Everyone admits the level of service has gone down with key program areas providing unacceptable levels of service.

Increasing the fuel tax by 5 cents, to a total of 12 cents, would have made up the trust fund’s deficit for a least a few years. Staff predicts that beginning in FY 2023, the deficit will increase to $9 million a year. A hike in the fuel tax also would have allowed an immediate improvement in the level of service for sidewalks and road resurfacing.

The money from the tax increase would have been shared with the municipalities with a 60%/40% split. And the county’s visitors would have contributed to paying the costs.

The transportation trust fund pays for operations and maintenance of transportation facilities, such as roads, rights-of way, bridges, sidewalks, signage, ditches, culverts and more. Work includes road resurfacing, mowing, tree trimming, as well as stormwater maintenance, street sweeping and more.

Other options for shoring up the fund include a levying a dedicated property tax or using general fund dollars, which also could mean an increase in property tax.

Staff estimated that a motorist driving 13,500 miles a year would spend about $27.11 on gas with the increase in the fuel tax.

However, the commission favored decreasing the proposed rollback of the millage rate to make up the deficit. Commissioners were required to approve a tentative rate by Aug. 3.

The current millage rate is 5.2755 mills. On July 13, Burton had proposed rolling back the rate for FY 2022 to 5.0170 mills, which would bring in $24 million less in revenue for next year. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Berger said the full rollback would have meant a saving of about $45.25 for single-family homeowners. He estimated that a partial rollback would equal a savings of about $16.79. But calculations must be done to find what is needed to bring in the same amount that would have been generated by an increase in the fuel tax.

“This gives us time to find a more long-term solution,” Burton said.

The final calculation will be reported to the property appraiser, which will be included in the Truth in Millage Notices to be mailed to property owners on Aug. 23. The tentative millage rate can be lowered but not raised until the final budget hearing on Sept. 21.

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