County likely to keep millage rates steady, some fire districts may see rollback rates

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton says the county’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is “based on a positive, optimistic, yet realistic outlook for our future.”

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget is just over $2.4 billion, about $13.2 million more than the current year.

County Administrator Barry Burton and Bill Berger, director of the Office of Management & Budget, presented a summary of the proposed budget and millage rates during the County Commission’s July 23 meeting.

Berger announced the news that most people wanted to hear. No millage rate increases are proposed.

If approved by the commission, the General Fund millage rate would stay at 5.2755 mills, which is unchanged since FY 2014. The EMS rate would remain at 0.9158 mills, the same as it’s been since FY 2014. The Health Department would continue at 0.0835 mills, as it has been since FY 2018, and MSTU millage rate would stay at 2.0857 mills, which is unchanged since FY 2009.

The millage rate is the amount per $1,000 used to calculate taxes. A mill is equivalent to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Berger had some good news for seven of the county’s 12 fire districts. No millage rate increase is proposed for any of them, and the seven will likely be charged the rollback rate, which will generate the same amount of money for the district as the current year. But, the tax bill for fire services in the seven districts won’t increase and may even go lower, Berger said.

The fire districts likely to be charged the rollback rate are Belleair Bluffs, Clearwater, Dunedin, Gandy, Largo, Safety Harbor and South Pasadena.

Commissioners are scheduled to approve millage rates Aug. 1. The property appraiser must be notified of the maximum millage rate by Aug. 2, so Truth in Millage notices can be completed in time to mail out to property owners on Aug. 20. After the TRIM notices are finished, rates cannot be increased, but they could go down.

Although keeping the millage rates the same is good news, it does not mean property taxes will remain the same. Increased property values equals increased taxable values, so bills will go up, as will the amount of money available to pay for government.

Staff estimates that the county’s operating expenses will increase by 2.8% or $51.2 million, and costs paid from the General Fund will go up by 3.4% or $24.7 million. Keeping the millage rates steady will allow the county to pay the higher costs and maintain reserves at 16.5% ($105 million), which is above the 15% required by commission policy. Berger said excess reserves could be used to pay for some of the extras the commission had requested.

The proposed budget for departments that report to the Board of County Commissioners is $1.5 billion, which is 1.8% ($28.4 million) lower than the current year. It includes $1.1 billion in operating expenses, an increase of $3.6 million over the current year. Berger noted the governmental services budget of nearly $625 million was a decrease of $19.2 million while the set aside for enterprise services of almost $436 million was an increase of $22.8 million.

The money pays for functions ranging from the airport to solid waste, animal services to EMS and parks to public works.

The budget for the constitutional officers, which includes the clerk of the circuit court & comptroller, property appraiser, sheriff, supervisor of elections and tax collector totals $378 million, which is a 1.8% increase ($6.5 million). It represents 16% of the total budget. Operating expenses are $371 million, an increase of $16 million. The majority of the cost, 85%, is attributed to the sheriff’s office ($316 million).

Another $510 million is budgeted for other agencies, which include business technology services, risk management, human resources, unincorporated area fire districts, libraries, recreation, and court support, such as the public defender, state attorney and judiciary.

The budget supports staffing levels of nearly 60 more employees, bringing the total number of full time workers to 5,414. The number includes 26 for the departments that report to the BCC; however, Berger pointed out that only three were new positions with the remainder replacing contractors or temporary workers.

Employees working for the constitutional officers will increase by 32 with the majority, 27, going to the sheriff’s office.

The budget includes about 30 priority initiatives that support the commission’s strategic goals, which are to create a quality workforce; ensure public health, safety and welfare; practice superior environmental stewardship; foster continual economic growth and vitality; and deliver first-class services to the public and customers.

In his message that accompanied the proposed budget, Burton says the proposed budget is sustainable through FY 2025 and beyond “based on a positive, optimistic, yet realistic outlook for our future.

“Our local economy demonstrates sustained improvement with continuing record levels of tourism, historically low unemployment, all-time highs in airport passenger growth, sales tax growth and increasing values in the real estate market,” he said.

The tentative budget should be posted on the county’s website by Sept. 10; however, due to a lawsuit over compliance with ADA requirements, some budget documents currently are not available online. Staff is working to post documents as soon as possible.

The first public hearing is scheduled on Thursday, Sept. 12, and the second and final hearing will be on Tuesday, Sept. 24. The meetings will begin at 6 p.m. in the Fifth Floor Assembly Room of the County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. By statutory requirements, the FY 2020 budget must be posted online by Oct. 23.

For more information, visit www.pinellascounty.org/budget/default.htm.

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