Pinellas County Commissioners still undecided on property tax hike

05/11/12 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas County Commissioners are grappling with how to close the budget gap caused by a change to the state’s Medicaid billing system. At a special meeting Thursday night in Safety Harbor, commissioners were split on whether to raise property taxes or implement a series of budget cuts.

Governor Rick Scott signed legislation that would require counties to pony up the dough for their unpaid Medicaid claims. The new law will leave Pinellas County short $5 million this fiscal year.

“And going out over the ten year period, it’s about $75 million in total that the county will have to try to find a way to pay.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said paying money they legitimately owe isn’t what is causing a fuss.

“The problem is, the state has a flawed billing system. We get bills for folks who don’t live in Pinellas County. We get multiple bills for folks. The error rate is about 20-30% of the bills are wrong. So, the county hasn’t been paying those bills that are not verified just like you wouldn’t pay for an invoice that wasn’t verified on your home. And so there’s a backlog on those bills and instead of the state proving that ‘yes, these were your citizens that you need to pay for’, they are just saying ‘we’re going to force you to pay for that’.”

The changes to Medicaid billing implemented by the state leave commissioners with two options – raise millage rates or cut services. Neither is appealing and Pinellas County Commissioners are at odds over what to do. Commissioner Neil Brickfield is one of the three adamantly opposed to any tax increases.

“We’re in a weak economy. We’ve been in a weak economy for three years. This is no time to be increasing our taxes.”

The increase being considered would only impact the average homestead property by $25 dollars a year. But even that is too much for Brickfield who said other solutions can be worked out.

“We have approximately $450 million general fund, or operating fund, this would represent a $25 million cut to that. Since I’ve been here we cut 80 million one year, 60 million another year and 20 million another year. So, it’s hard, but it’s not like we haven’t had to face these challenges before. And I should remind you, we have collapsed services, we have combined departments, we have reprogrammed almost everything we spend in our effort to figure out what it is we’re going to do and how we do it best.”

“In a $450 million budget we have lots and lots of opportunities to find the savings we need. And hopefully when we’re done, we’re going to find enough savings and enough things that we can change or reduce that we don’t have to raise taxes.

But Commissioner Ken Welch said the county can get through the first year, but needs to also consider future impacts to increasingly tight budgets.

“Well, it basically will wipe out the savings account that we’ve set up in order to get us through this year’s budget without major cuts or without a millage increase. It’s about $28 million that the county commission and the constitutionals, including the Sherriff, have worked hard to accumulate. And now this cost shift from the state will wipe that out, not only this year, but for years to come.”

For now the belt has been tightened on all of Florida’s 67 counties and officials in Pinellas are planning for the worst. But Welch said that doesn’t mean they are going to sit back and do nothing.

“Absolutely. Fifty-five counties including Pinellas County have filed a lawsuit. We have no choice. This is an unfunded mandate. It’s an unfair billing system and we simply just can’t sit back and allow that to be passed on to our taxpayers.”

Commissioners also discussed the Medicaid billing dilemma at their regular meeting on Tuesday. But even though there is a looming threat of tax hikes on homeowners who are already struggling, public comment was non-existent. Commissioners Norm Roche and Welch weren’t sure what to make of that.

“How do we take the lack of public input? Given all of the numbers and data we just looked at, would it be a satisfaction?”

*“I think there are a number of – fatigue could be one. I mean there were normally one or two people even at our trim meetings back in ‘05, ‘06, ‘07. And the other thing is, we don’t have a full picture yet in terms of where we’re going with this budget you know? Those are two options.”*

And Commissioner Susan Latvala expanded on that.

“Until we tell them what it is we’re going to do, they don’t have anything to point to. I think that’s the reason we don’t have throngs of people telling us what to do. They expect us to present a budget and then they poke at it – or praise it – whichever the case may be.”

Commissioners may just be enjoying the calm before the storm though. Welch said the board is likely to have a budget proposal ready by July. Whether that includes a millage increase or cuts to social service programs, commissioners expect a backlash one way or another.

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