Pinellas should hold line on taxes
Pinellas County commissioners are expected to consider a request today from County Administrator Bob LaSala to raise property taxes. LaSala says the increase is needed to plug a projected $9 million budget shortfall and give the county's employees a 2.8 percent raise. Commissioners should think long and hard before agreeing to any tax increase. Although wages are creeping upward and the unemployment rate is creeping downward, too many taxpayers in Pinellas County and across the Tampa Bay area continue to struggle to make ends meet. LaSala should do what those homeowners do and find a way to balance his budget within the county's means.This is especially true when the county is experiencing the first increase in property values in five years, which is expected to add $8.7 million to the county's tax collections. Tourism, another economic engine in Pinellas, is at record levels. Yet LaSala is proposing a 5 percent increase in the county's general fund, and an 8 percent increase in the tax rate for emergency medical services. The millage rate for the general fund would increase from $5.01 for every $1,000 in taxable value to $5.27 for every $1,000 in taxable value. In his letter to commissioners recommending the increase, LaSala says he expects the economic recovery to be slow and long. "History tells us we will experience another recession within the next five years," he writes. He is making a case for increasing revenues now to prevent even tougher decisions in the future. He wants to build up reserves of nearly $100 million. And he wants to give raises for the first time in four or five years to keep good employees from leaving. These are the same challenges facing leaders in Hillsborough, where raises are being proposed without raising property taxes. We understand LaSala's pain, but he needs to search the $1.7 billion budget for ways to give raises while holding the line on taxes. Maybe this isn't the year to boost reserves. Raising taxes at the start of a recovery makes government look opportunistic, rather than fiscally responsible. In fact, some fiscal conservatives would argue that rising property values represent a tax hike. Raising the tax rate would only add to the burden.