Hard Candy: Budget Time — Follow the (Real) Money

It’s budget time in the city of Gulfport again, and I’d like to ask you a question:

How much do you care? I don’t mean about the Gulfport budget; Gulfport is one miniscule part of the budget puzzle, but it receives the lion’s share of the public’s attention. The folks who religiously attend council meetings are excellent motivators for not only city council but city staff to act responsibly; I wish they brought that passion to the county level.

Granted, the city is the most localized form of government and also the most accessible, so it makes sense that people focus on it. It’s much easier to walk over to city hall after a long day of work than it is to drive to Clearwater and sit through the bureaucratic nightmare that is the county commission or school board. But that’s what the county is counting on; county and state agencies get most of your money with none of the accountability.

You paid the county and state over $34 million in property taxes every year. That’s over three times the amount you paid the city of Gulfport. On every thousand dollars of your home’s taxable value, less than $4 went to Gulfport, while about $15 went to Pinellas county and state agencies.

While Gulfport residents paid the city 3.47 mils (or dollars per thousand of the property’s taxable value) last year, they paid Pinellas County 4.81, a citywide total of roughly $1.7 million.

That’s why I watch the city struggle with what will amount to a penny or two for each resident and wish that Gulfportians would march over to the county and demand the same accountability from them. Commissioners make over $90,000 every year, and while I understand they have hard jobs, I also understand that their combined salary totals over $630,000, which would be more than enough to add a few officers to Gulfport’s police force and keep GEMS going for a while. Imagine if Gulfport residents started making public records requests about how much money the county spent on consultants, or how much money the county spends on pens and giveaways.

The county isn’t the only one who deserves focus. Consider the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud. Not only do you pay taxes to the state-appointed board that oversees the entirety of southwest Florida’s water supplies, you pay a separate tax to its local board, the Pinellas-Anclote Basin Board. Last year, that was a combined total of 71 cents per thousand dollars of your home’s taxable value. Not a lot until you consider that, as a city, you’re paying them $1.6 million, more than Gulfport’s entire emergency services budget.

Don’t think much about the school board? You should; between state and local taxes, the schools get $8.39 for every thousand dollars of your home’s worth, over twice what you’re paying in city taxes. That’s right: Gulfport residents pay, in taxes, twice the city’s entire budget to the schools. That makes me feel a lot better about the pile of desks, chairs and tables the school board threw out when it re-did Boca Ciega High School. We’re really getting our $20 million dollars there.

Then there’s the Pinellas Planning Council, health department, EMS, and the Juvenile Welfare Board. Combined, they get about $1.45 of every thousand bucks your home is worth. Again, not a lot until you consider that it totals about $3.4 million dollars of Gulfport money, which is almost exactly what our police department needs to survive.

Why not show up and raise hell – politely, of course – at some of these other meetings? Here’s a place to start: the county’s cutting staff at an alarming rate, some of whom were weeks away from retirement, closing bathrooms at parks, and dismantling its Environmental Lands department. Why, then, does the county have a $2.2 million public relations budget? The county’s media relations and public outreach department has a larger budget that’s twice as big as Gulfport’s Fire and EMS budget.

I understand we’re one-tenth of the county’s population, but I still don’t think people quite understand how much of their money never gets back to Gulfport. How many of you attended a school board budget meeting and asked them to cut your taxes? Who of you spoke up at a Swiftmud budget meeting? Who here will attend the county budget meeting next week?

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on how the city can cut taxes. But no one seems to get that Gulfport is a drop in your tax bill budget. I hear people at council saying they had a $20,000 tax bill and they want services. What they may not realize is that of that money, Gulfport gets not quite $4,000 and the county and other agencies get the rest. Do those men and women complain to the School Board? Do they e-mail their commission or demand a meeting?

It’s a different world up there. Commission Chairperson Karen Seel is no Mike Yakes. Your representative, Ken Welch, would never have spent two months on chickens. They’re big city up there, surrounded by old money and old buildings. They are insulated from the public, usually by nicely-appointed reception areas. And because of that, they get away with a lot. It’s harder to navigate their bureaucracy. We’re just a dot on their map, a city that has to send councilmembers and a city manager to fight for every dime it gets.

Pinellas County will have its final budget hearing at 6:30 Tuesday night. While the school board meetings have passed, it’s not too late for the county one. While only part of your $34 million goes to the county, it’s still a lot of money. Don’t you think you deserve something for it?

Get a copy of the county’s budget at PinellasCounty.org/budget. Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

Originally published in print September 16, 2010

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.