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    It's day of decision for county budget

    Commissioners are to vote on whether to increase taxes for residents outside cities as part of a $1.5-billion budget.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 27, 2002

    Tonight is your last chance to tell Pinellas County commissioners how you feel about the county's proposed $1.5-billion budget.

    Commissioners are set to vote on their budget tonight. They already have given preliminary approval to the spending plan, which would not increase countywide tax rates.

    But it would increase the property tax rate that residents outside cities pay by 50 cents of every $1,000 in unexempt taxable value. Those residents also would pay a higher tax on phone and cable use.

    The county also would increase fees for issuing building permits and similar charges.

    But what has been getting the most attention is the increase for unincorporated residents. Those residents pay the same countywide tax as others, plus a special property tax that funds services that only they receive, such as sheriff's patrols. That's the tax rate that would increase.

    Dozens of unincorporated residents came to speak for and against the proposal at a hearing last week. Some residents say the county shouldn't hike taxes now. Others back the rate hike because about $2-million of the increase would go to improve recreation programs outside the cities.

    Last week, six commissioners voted in favor of the proposed budget. Only Commissioner John Morroni voted against it.

    The increase "is just way too much all at the same time for people to absorb," he said.

    Morroni said he's happy that the county's overall budget growth has slowed, but he said it's still increasing too much. Last year's budget was about $7-million less.

    Democratic commission candidate David Buby, who is running against Republican Morroni, has a different view. Buby supports the increase for unincorporated residents, but said the county needs to set a formula so that the funds raised in each community are spent there.

    Buby also said the county needs to increase funding for social programs. He pointed to a different way the county could cut spending: by slashing the seven commissioners' $76,452 salaries to $60,000 each.

    But that's easier said than done. Under the county charter, commission salaries are set by a state formula. Commissioners can't raise their own salaries -- but they can't cut them either. To cut the salaries, commissioners, the legislative delegation or the county's charter review commission would have to vote to take the question to a citizen ballot.

    If you go

    Commissioners will hold the public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. today in the fifth floor conference room at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St. in Clearwater.

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