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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2018
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Tampa heading into several tough budget years

TAMPA — Less pain now, more pain later.

That's one way to look at the decision the City Council faces when it votes on Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed 2018 budget this week.

The council decided last week to raise property taxes, but not by as much as Buckhorn asked. In doing so, it also opted not to put as much money aside for a couple of upcoming fiscal shocks.

Buckhorn proposed raising Tampa's property tax rate from $5.73 to $6.63 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed value. That would have added $140 next year to the tax bill of the average owner-occupied home in the city, and an average of $279 for taxpayers who live in South Tampa, where home values are highest.

Buckhorn said the additional revenue could have helped cushion the city against a possible expansion of the homestead exemption and the repayment of tens of millions of dollars that City Hall borrowed in the mid-1990s but postponed repaying until now.

Instead, the council voted 4-3 to set a tax rate of $6.33 in tax per $1,000 in assessed value. If adopted after a final hearing at 5 p.m. Thursday, that would add $105 to the tax bill of the average Tampa homeowner and $205 for the average South Tampa homeowner.

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There are several ways to look at this proposed increase to the tax rate.

First, it's rare.

Tampa has not raised its rate since 1989, though city tax bills have grown consistently as the value of property has gone up. That puts Tampa in a small club. Since 2008, every city in Florida with a population over 100,000 had raised its property tax rate at least once except for Tampa, Hialeah and Fort Lauderdale.

Next, in percentage terms, it's big.

Buckhorn proposed an increase of nearly 22.6 percent, according to the state formula for factoring the growth in property values into the decision of where to set the tax rate. With the council's change, the increase is still 17 percent. By comparison, Hillsborough County is proposing a 5.3 percent increase to its aggregate tax rate.

But even with the increase, Tampa would still have a low rate compared to other major Florida cities.

Recall: Tampa is looking at a rate of $6.33 in tax per $1,000 of taxable property value.

Property tax rates this year in Orlando, St. Petersburg, Miami and Jacksonville ranged from $6.65 to $11.44 in taxes per $1,000 of taxable value.

Finally, the tax rate is not the only way that Tampa residents and property owners have seen their city bills go up.

In 2015, the city raised the stormwater fee that pays to clean out ditches and ponds, sweep streets and unplug storm drains from $36 to $82 per year for owners of mid-sized houses. The city has since used the additional revenue for more frequent maintenance, but that wasn't the end.

In 2016, the city created a new stormwater fee to pay for $251 million in large projects designed to expand the capacity of Tampa's drainage system and ease chronic flooding in low-lying areas of the city. The new fee is ramping up gradually over six years to nearly $90 per year for the owner of a medium-sized home.

A recent online poll found that street and stormwater problems were the top priorities most often named by the more than 2,000 people surveyed.

But council member Harry Cohen said he's heard plenty from constituents who said Buckhorn's proposed property tax increase, coming on top of the stormwater fees, is just too much. Cohen was one of three council members who voted against Buckhorn's budget, proposing cuts in spending and a lower tax rate.

Much of Buckhorn's budget, he said, is based on projections that can't be known with certainty, so it seems reasonable to go small at first.

"You can always do a little bit more if the need is there," he said.

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Asking for more is a real possibility, city Chief Financial Officer Sonya Little has told the City Council.

At Buckhorn's proposed tax rate, Little projected that the city could set aside a few million in each of the next couple of years to help pay the deferred debt from the 1990s and ease the hit to property tax revenues from doubling the homestead exemption.

But at the lower rate the council approved last week, it still might be necessary to raise the tax rate again next year.

That's bad planning to the point of "political malfeasance," said council member Mike Suarez, another "no" vote on Buckhorn's budget.

But city projections show without the additional money Buckhorn is seeking, in late 2019 a new mayor and likely a new lineup on the City Council could have to figure out how to cover a revenue shortfall projected to be $25 million instead of $15 million under Buckhorn's original proposal.

"That's always the choice," Buckhorn said. "That's what I was trying to help them avoid down the road, even though I'm not going to be here."

If you go

The City Council will hold its final public hearing on Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed 2018 budget and property tax rate at 5 p.m. Thursday in the City Council chambers on the third floor of Old City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.

If you go

The City Council will hold its final public hearing on Mayor Buckhorn's proposed budget and property tax rate at 5 p.m. Thursday in the City Council chambers on the third floor of Old City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.

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