Commission looks to tighten its belt
By Will Van Sant
Published January 7, 2007
Last year's tax revolt has seized the attention of Pinellas County commissioners, who vow increased scrutiny of spending in 2007.
Leading the effort will be County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan, a commercial real estate developer and broker who will serve as the group's chairman this year.
Duncan, 49, points out that county government levies account for 28 percent of a Pinellas property owner's tax bill. Duncan's goal is to ensure that all government functions funded by the 28 percent are justified.
"That's at the top of my list," he said. "We have to and we will focus on better fiscal restraint."
This frugality will likely be visible at commission meetings, where discussion of spending proposals may become more lengthy than during recent years of record property tax revenue.
And when budget discussions begin in April, look for a more rigorous review of proposed spending, with old favorites and new ventures being deemed unnecessary and getting the ax.
The new austerity is being fueled by residents' anger over rising tax bills and insurance costs. Other commission members agree that this year much of their attention will be spent on pocket book matters.
That will mean lobbying the State Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist. Both are exploring tax reform this year.
"If you work every day and you can't afford to live here, it's a problem," said County Commissioner Calvin Harris. "As the government that is closest to the people, we have to be the advocate."
One proposal Crist champions calls for raising the amount of property value homeowners can exempt from taxation to $50,000 from $25,000. The boost to the homestead exemption would hit local government revenue hard.
Though getting the increase enacted this year is uncertain, just the prospect has commissioners thinking hard about new fiscal realities.
"I'm terrified," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala. "We are not going to be talking about what we are going to do but what we are not going to do."
Rather than raising the homestead, county leaders want the State Legislature and the governor to explore other options. County Commissioner Ken Welch cited capping annual assessments on commercial properties as one possible remedy.
Another is exploring changes to state law so that properties could be assessed on their current rather than highest and best use, Welch said.
Also critical for the county this year is getting residents to approve a 10-year extension of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax in March.
The tax, which is shared with Pinellas municipalities, has come to pay for 75 percent of all county infrastructure costs. Without Penny revenue, the fate of big-ticket projects such as expansion to the county jail, bridge replacements and transportation improvements would be in doubt.
"Our data shows strong support," Welch said. "The key selling point is that it's not a property tax and tourists pay a third of it. I'm optimistic we'll pass it."
Despite the increased attention to dollars and cents, Duncan still hopes to make inroads in two policy areas in 2007: affordable housing and transportation.
One challenge for Duncan will be protecting resources already allocated to affordable housing initiatives and encouraging cooperation among cities, the county and the private sector so that below-market housing units actually get built.
Duncan plans to convene a summit of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county leaders in early February to discuss ways of integrating regional transportation services, a top priority for him.
Everything is on the table, Duncan said, from modest initiatives that could improve service to Tampa International Airport to new modes of transit for the region.
"I want to have a true forum to talk about everything from the low-hanging fruit to the potential of light rail and how we connect it across the bay," Duncan said.
Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or email@example.com.