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A start for tax relief

The Pinellas County Commission cuts the tax rate at a cost of $36-million from the county budget. But some taxpayers say it's not enough. They want a rollback.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 20, 2006

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County leaders delivered promised relief to angry taxpayers Tuesday, reducing next year's rate to its lowest level in 15 years.

But for many of the 250 people who crowded the night meeting, it still wasn't enough. Many pleaded with county commissioners, who had already proposed a 10.3 percent decrease in the tax rate, to cut even more.

When the night was over, commissioners said they did the best that they could do and that it was too late in the budget cycle to cut any more. They promised to get more aggressive with the budget next year and help lobby for statewide tax reform.

The $1.926-billion spending plan for 2007, which the commission approved unanimously, drops the countywide rate to $6.10 for every $1,000 of taxable property value. The reduction will cost Pinellas about $36-million in revenue and result in program and staff cuts.

Earlier plans called for a smaller reduction, from the current $6.80 per $1,000 to $6.60. But after irate taxpayers appeared before the board on Sept. 7, spending was trimmed to further lower the rate.

Still, many who spoke Tuesday night asked for a reduction to $5.72 per $1,000. Due to a record increase in property values, that rate would produce the same amount of revenue in 2007 as the county took in this year.

Steve Eddy, who moved to Palm Harbor from Texas a year ago, said he is shocked by what he's being asked to pay in taxes on his home.

"There's a crisis in the state of Florida," Eddy told the board. "There's some people who are going to have to leave the state."

The most strident speakers were small business owners, particularly those who own beach rentals, where taxes have risen sharply in recent years. Unlike many single family homeowners, they can't benefit from an annual cap on property assessments.

Lee Wilkerson, who rents properties in Indian Rocks Beach, said his tax bill jumped from $64,000 to $105,000 in a single year. He urged the board to adopt the $5.72 so-called rollback rate, or face the consequences.

"I'm offering you guys a way out, a way out of political suicide," he told the board. "Because that's what you are committing now with this budget."

While the board may not have gone far enough for Wilkerson and many others, the meeting was the latest example of taxpayer unrest having an impact this budget season. In recent weeks, residents across the Tampa Bay region and throughout Florida have appeared before local governing boards, demanding and often getting tax cuts.

Under the new rate, the owner of a home with a taxable value of $200,000 will pay Pinellas County $1,220 next year, $100 less than what would have been owed under the rate first proposed.

That bill does not take into account additional levies residents must pay to the School Board, their towns and other taxing authorities.

To make the trims, the county had to raid nearly $19-million in reserves and drop funding for, among other things, a DNA crime lab and enhanced dental health programs for the indigent.

Spared were many of the social welfare programs some budget critics have attacked, including $10-million to create below-market-rate housing and $1-million for programs to combat homelessness.

Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com

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