CLEARWATER — Property tax rates will remain unchanged, county workers are in line for a 3 percent pay raise and there will be more money for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, economic development and health care for the poor under a proposed county budget.
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard unveiled his $1.9 billion budget for 2015 at a meeting Tuesday, expressing quiet confidence that the local economy has turned the corner after several austere years following the recession.
Next year, county coffers will be boosted by a 6.4 percent rise in property values, record levels of tourism and a 4 percent rise in sales tax revenue. A 5 to 10 percent month-to-month increase in building permits over the past two years also has bolstered confidence that the county’s economy is rebounding, Woodard said.
“There is great cause for optimism,” Woodard said.
The extra revenue meant Woodard could say yes to about a dozen additional funding requests from county constitutional officers and commissioners, a luxury largely denied his predecessor Bob LaSala, who led the county during the recession.
The main beneficiary is Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who will get an extra $10 million. Roughly $8.2 million of that will go to introduce a new pay scale for sworn officers to make the agency more competitive with other local police departments. He will also spend $1.5 million on lease payments to replace aging cruisers and other vehicles.
The Supervisor of Elections Office will get an extra $433,000 to cover the costs of extended early voting periods and the addition of two early voting sites. The Public Defender’s Office will receive $250,000 to continue a jail diversion program for chronic inebriates that helps people detox and offers counseling.
Concerns about increased homelessness led to an extra $30,000 for the Homeless Leadership Board, boosting its annual funding to $100,000.
Roughly $500,000 will go toward a dental care program for residents who have no health insurance. Another $70,000 will go to the Juvenile Welfare Board to fund a new mobile dental unit intended to provide dental sealants to 1,000 students at 12 elementary schools. The program is intended to reduce the risk of cavities and the need for emergency room visits among the county’s poorest children.
The Pinellas County Urban League will receive $75,000 to set up a new mobile health unit to take medical care into poor neighborhoods.
After years of cuts, funding for economic development also will get an increase, with $90,000 allocated to boost Pinellas’ presence at international trade fairs and foreign trade.
Under the proposed budget, the county’s general fund property tax rate will remain at 5.28 mills. The owner of a home valued at the county average of roughly $156,500 and eligible for a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay general fund taxes of about $562.
Some residents could end up paying more than last year because home values have risen. County officials estimate the increase for an average value home would be about $35. Residents in the East Lake Fire District will begin paying a 0.25 mill property tax for upkeep of sports fields and other recreation activities.
There will be no increase in the property tax rate levied for emergency medical services or the additional property tax rate levied on residents in unincorporated Pinellas for services typically provided by cities.
Commissioners have until July 31 to make any further amendments and for the county to finalize its proposed tax rates. Final proposed rates are sent to the property appraiser on Aug, 4 so they can be included in the Truth in Millage notices scheduled to be mailed to property owners on Aug. 22.
Two public hearings on the budget are scheduled, Sept. 11 and Sept. 23.