Pinellas Commissioners reject Welch-proposed millage increase

07/28/09 Seán Kinane
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The Pinellas County Commission today rejected an increase in property tax rates. Commissioner Ken Welch's motion to slightly raise the rate - which still would have resulted in a major decline in property tax revenues - was not supported by any of his colleagues.

Welch recommended raising the rate paid by Pinellas County homeowners in order to restore some services and save the county from a deficit next year and beyond. Welch says his proposal to raise the rate from $4.81 per $1,000 of a home’s taxable value to $5.14 would bring in an additional $21.6 million.

“Hospitals took the brunt of our cuts last year – we could restore that $3 million.”

Welch pointed out that over the past three years the county has already made $76 million in cuts, reduced the tax rate from 6.8 mills, and cut nearly 1200 positions.

Some commissioners, like Karen Seel, suggest that instead of raising the millage rate, additional savings could still be found.

“For years we’ve talked about not-for-profits need for consolidation, for efficiency in our health care system. And I guess I haven’t seen that happen. That's why I'm having trouble supporting this. … That’s why I have a little bit of angst at this point.”

The lack of support for his measure, which did not receive a second, was “not unexpected,” according to Welch. He asked his colleagues how they plan to trim the deficit beginning next year. Commissioner Nancy Bostock says major cuts of $7-8 million will have to come from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think we’re forgetting: we were either right on target, or really close to being on target until we deferred the cuts that were expected this year from the Sheriff’s department. We didn’t say, ‘Those don’t need to happen,’ we said, ‘Take another twelve months and get your feet under you and find the best ways to make those cuts.’ A majority of that, I suspect, will come from the Sheriff’s budget.”

But according to Commissioner Welch, who says he is “disappointed,” his proposal to increase millage was designed in part to avoid cuts to law enforcement.

“The deficit is there, we need to find a way to address it, and you heard my colleagues say that they intend to look to the Sheriff. I didn’t want to cut public safety further. I certainly want to restore funding to our hospitals and social agencies and affordable housing trust fund. But, yeah, in terms of next year’s budget, the Sheriff has some work to do.”

Sheriff Jim Coats says he hoped the Commission would have supported Welch’s proposed millage increase.

“You know, it’s just going to compromise the county’s ability to provide services for fiscal year 11-12. But hopefully, the economy starts recovering to where it’s not going to be as drastic as it was perceived to be or projected to be. … There’s supposedly, from their figures, analysis of this a 7.6 or 7.8 [million dollar] gap. I will argue that it’s not $7.8 million, it’s less than that. And even if it was 7.8, it’s not all the Sheriff’s responsibility. That’s yet to be vetted out.”

Each year a Pinellas interfaith group known as FAST, Faith and Action for Strength Together, gathers to ask policy makers for solutions to county issues. In April the group – which represents 60,000 people - got four commissioners to commit advocating for a $5 million allocation to the county’s affordable housing trust fund. But there is no allocation in the current budget, despite the promises by Commissioners Calvin Harris, John Morroni, Karen Seel, and Ken Welch.

Six members of FAST were the only people to speak on the budget during the public comment segment of the workshop. All six, including Donna Davis from Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, asked the Commission to re-fund the affordable housing task force.

“And I’m shocked that there have been no monies allotted in the affordable housing trust fund, which was supposed to have been funded by $10 million for three years. $19.2 million which has been funded in the past. I’m here to speak for the thousands of citizens in Pinellas County that need affordable housing.”

Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, is co-chair of FAST. He supported Welch’s suggested millage increase, which could have provided $3 million toward affordable housing.

“Well, I was very disappointed and really surprised that they didn’t even give it a second to even allow it to get to the voting process. … Which really was a very viable, very sensible and reasonable change in the budget that really gave a great outlook that dealt with not only our deficits now, but it dealt with the deficits all the way out to 2013. … And I was surprised that the other three commissioners, to me, went completely back on their word and their commitment to at least fund it to some degree.”

The Pinellas County Commission will approve the tentative budget and millage in their meeting next Tuesday, August 4 at 9:30 a.m.

Pinellas 2010 proposed budget

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

WMNF coverage of Commissioner Welch’s millage increase proposal

WMNF coverage of 2009 FAST meeting

WMNF coverage of 2008 FAST meeting

WMNF coverage of 2006 FAST meeting

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