Tampa's strong fiscal stewardship
The budget Mayor Bob Buckhorn submitted to Tampa City Council this week illustrates the sort of fiscal stewardship that has enabled Tampa to endure the long economic downturn in remarkably good shape. While cities around the nation are declaring bankruptcy, slashing key services and facing cavernous pension obligations, Tampa's finances are solid. That is because our mayors diligently covered pension responsibilities, made do without increasing the property tax rate and — especially former Mayor Pam Iorio — put money away for future emergencies. When the recession hit, Iorio and then Buckhorn refused to put the arm on taxpayers. They sought to make government leaner and more efficient — cutting about 700 positions since the downturn.So even while falling property values caused the city's property tax revenue to plummet from $166 million in 2007 to $115.2 million, Buckhorn still has managed to devise a responsible $804 million budget that covers basic needs while improving neighborhoods and infrastructure. Executives looking for a community that runs a tight fiscal ship should be impressed by Tampa. Buckhorn says, "Coming out of the recession, I think the city will be well positioned." He understands the city must continue to invest for future success even during hard times. That is why his budget calls for spending on neighborhood parks and other community improvements, including the Riverwalk, which within a few years will run 2.4 miles from Channelside to Tampa Heights. He also managed to provide some amenities with little cost to the public. Friday night, for instance, he was to turn on colorful lighting on five downtown bridges, a project sponsored by Tampa Electric Co. and Peoples Gas. "How people feel about their city has a lot to do with how it looks," Buckhorn tells us. "People are feeling a renewed sense of pride." Buckhorn is justly proud of the city's new streamlined permitting process, which he considers a model for local governments. It may be no coincidence that nearly $300 million of commercial projects are under way in the urban core. The mayor faced a $27.8 million shortfall when the budget process began. He covered most of it by cutting operating costs, restructuring debt and making other austerity moves. He also used $8.7 million from the city's cash reserves. Although this is less than ideal, the severe recession certainly constitutes an emergency. The city still retains robust reserves — $103 million, well above what Wall Street recommends. Bond ratings won't be affected. Buckhorn expects perhaps one more year of needing to tap the reserves. Notably, the city has not raised its property tax rate since 1988. At 5.73, it is well below the 10-mill cap, yet city leaders have wisely avoided the temptation to increase the tax rate to escape budget cutbacks. This doesn't mean there has not been city waste or excesses through the years. Employee raises, in particular, became generous when tax revenues were flowing. But the city, far better than most, kept its books in order and didn't flinch when painful cuts were needed. Buckhorn can be proud of an efficient but forward-looking budget that continues the city's legacy of responsible stewardship. It merits the approval of city council.