Taxes may go up for some
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
The 285,000 residents of unincorporated Pinellas County could pay more property, cable and phone taxes next year under the county budget that Administrator Steve Spratt is likely to recommend.
Most of the increase would be needed because Spratt thinks the county's unincorporated residents have not been paying their full share for the county services they get. Too much of those costs have been paid with money collected throughout the county, including cities, he said.
Commissioners gave Spratt an informal go-ahead Tuesday after Spratt discussed the plan with them. His proposed budget -- his first since taking the county's top job in December -- is due Monday.
"It may be painful to make these adjustments," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who lives in unincorporated Palm Harbor. "But I think it's a very important thing to do."
If commissioners adopt Spratt's plan in August, unincorporated residents would pay an average of $18 more in combined phone and cable TV taxes per year, plus 25 cents more in property taxes for every $1,000 of the home's value.
The owner of a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption now pays $680 in the countywide property taxes that all county residents pay, plus $186 in a separate property tax for unincorporated residents. It's the second tax that would rise under Spratt's plan, costing such a homeowner another $25 per year.
Commissioners enacted the same rate increase for unincorporated residents last year, but that followed a rate cut of the same amount in 2000.
Making sure costs are fairly divided would "calm much of the animosity between the cities and the unincorporated areas," Latvala said. In the past few months, several city officials have argued that city residents are subsidizing the cost of services for those living outside cities.
Commissioners also asked Spratt for a more detailed report on why the costs should be shifted. Commission Chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd said she's not sure the shifts are fair.
"I do think it's a reaction to (criticism from) the cities, even on a subconscious level," she said.
Part of the increase would be used to improve recreation or other services for unincorporated residents. Commissioners Bob Stewart and Ken Welch said the county needs to look at ways to improve services more.
"We've got obvious needs in the unincorporated areas," Welch said. "I don't think this is enough for us to be competitive."
That's what Scott Fisher, president of the Old Palm Harbor Community Association, said his members want.
"I wasn't aware that we aren't paying our fair share," Fisher said. "A lot of people feel that we aren't even getting the basic services."
Spratt wants to shift $7.7-million worth of expenses from the county's general budget to the fund that pays for unincorporated costs. Those costs, stormwater drainage and some administrative expenses, benefit only residents outside cities, he said.
For years, county officials have handled some issues, like zoning cases and local legal battles, that affect only unincorporated residents, he said. But all of the county's administrative costs have been paid with countywide money. "This is a generally accepted approach," Spratt said of the change.
Because most of the unincorporated budget goes to pay for sheriff's patrols, commissioners have little flexibility, Spratt said. Either they cut services or increase fees.
Spratt suggested the increase after pointing out that most cities charge a higher tax rate on cable and phone fees than the county.
Under Spratt's plan, county residents also would pay more for many services and permits, such as animal tags and building permits. But, after three straight years of increases, there would be no change to the countywide property tax rate.
County officials have been talking about next year's budget for months, looking for places to cut. Times are tough because county sales tax revenue has fallen with the economic downturn.
Spratt also promised commissioners Tuesday he would find $3-million more to cut from his proposed budget without cutting services. But that promise brought questions as well.
Commissioner Karen Seel pointed out that if most of those cuts come from the countywide budget, it will essentially shift more county funds back to the unincorporated budget.
"The cities will say you're finally dealing with the (unincorporated budget), and then you're cutting $3-million," she told Spratt.
But Spratt said he's still working on where to make those cuts.
-- Times staff writer Ed Quioco contributed to this report.
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