Pinellas Commission approves fee increase for some infractions

07/07/09 Seán Kinane
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In an effort to address the county’s budget deficit, some traffic tickets in Pinellas County will soon cost fifteen dollars more. Today the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a surcharge on non-criminal traffic infractions and some criminal violations.

Last week Thomas McGrady was elected as chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit. On Tuesday he requested that the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners approve a code amendment “in order to provide an increase of 15 dollars towards a surcharge on non-criminal traffic infractions and certain criminal infractions. This should provide a significant increase in funds to the county to be used for facilities.”

Non-criminal traffic infractions include running a red light, failure to yield, and careless driving, according to Judge McGrady. He says that $2.9 million of expected revenue from the fee increase is already included in the projected circuit court budget. The fee increase was authorized by the state Legislature in 2004 when “a lot of the court funding was transferred to the state. However the counties kept the responsibilities for the facilities. And at that time, the legislature said we could charge a $15 assessment in these types of cases that would go to the county for facilities.”

According to county documents, the funds would be directed toward operating court-related facilities by the County Commission “in consultation with the Chief Judge.” Court-related facility expenditures usually far exceed the amount generated by fee revenue. The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the fee increase.

The Commission is also considering many other fee increases to help make up the county’s budget deficit. They could include increasing county park entrance fees, though Commissioner Ken Welch says those fee increases won’t balance the budget in the coming year.

“Those projected fees will come to us, but they won’t be included in next year’s budget. For example, if we move forward for Fort DeSoto entrance fee, it will take a while to get that up and running. And so, our staff has not brought that back to us. We know that a proposal will be coming but the specifics aren’t ready yet.”

Fee increases might be a necessary part of the budget process, Welch says, because of three years of declining county revenues.

“Over the last three years, it’s important to remember, that we’ve been cutting the budget. … There are only so many cuts that you can make and maintain core government services. I believe we are at that point. So that’s the discussion we’ll have.”

Commissioner Welch says that the county has already reduced expenses and is now raising fees. But he wants to be careful not to impact some of the critical county services, even if it means raising tax rates.

“Support for hospitals, homeless programs, $7 million for the Pinellas County Sheriff. It’s critical to understand that we’ve already done the heavy lifting: 780 jobs have already been eliminated in the projected budget. We’ve made up a significant part of the $85 million target. My point is that beyond a certain point, you do more harm to our community long-term by not looking at a small millage adjustment.”

But Welch is careful to point out that increasing the millage will still result in homeowners paying lower property taxes next year. Each mill represents a one dollar tax for every 1,000 dollars of a home’s taxable value.

“The question is really not about a property tax increase. Under our current millage, property taxes will be reduced $60-$65 million dollars in Pinellas County. The question is, can we live with a smaller tax decrease … say $50 million, instead of that $65 [million.] Folks - when they receive their tax bills - will see a lower tax bill. But if we adjust the millage, we may be able to save some critical services that are not in the projected budget.”

In other actions on Tuesday, the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners scheduled a public hearing to consider giving preferences to local companies during purchasing. The hearing will be on July 21st.

The Board also agreed to re-examine its requirement that electronic billboards change messages no more frequently than every sixty seconds. A workshop within the next two months will include a presentation from the billboard industry.

Pinellas County Board of Commissioners

Surcharge on non-criminal traffic infractions and some criminal violations

Local preference for purchasing

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