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Bigger Tampa city budget includes raises, drainage improvements

— Mayor Bob Buckhorn presented Tampa City Council with his 2015 city budget Thursday – an $876.2 million spending plan that includes pay raises for all city employees, short-term borrowing to improve streets and drainage and money for new police officers and emergency vehicles.

“I think our citizens and our neighbors will be happy with this budget, and I hope you will agree,” Buckhorn told council members in front of an audience of city employees.

The proposed budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, is 5.5 percent larger than the current budget.

City council members must approve the budget. They’ve set public hearings for Sept. 4 and Sept. 17.

The single-largest portion, the general fund, covers salaries and day-to-day operations outside the city’s utilities and parking departments. It will grow by nearly $9 million in 2015, thanks largely to a 2.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for every city employee except the mayor.

As in most city budgets, nearly two-thirds of that $363.3 million general fund will go to public safety.

Rising property taxes – driven by a growing tax base – have helped add to the city’s bottom line, although this year’s $132.2 million total remains about 20 percent less than the historic peak during the 2008 budget year.

The city closed a $6.3 million gap in its 2015 budget in part by reducing its contribution to city pension funds. That was possible because of how well the funds’ investments performed, Buckhorn said. The city’s pension funds – general employees plus police and fire – remain close to completely funded, he said.

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The coming budget year will be the second in which city employees will see pay raises. Negotiations with the unions representing city workers produced a three-year agreement that called for a 2 percent raise in the current year and a 3.5 percent raise in 2016.

The city has 713 fewer workers today than it had in 2008, the budget’s benchmark year largely because it was the peak of the housing market. Buckhorn said he’s committed to a slow and steady expansion of city staff. He told council members he personally reviews every new hire.

“We are doing more with less money and less people and we are not missing a beat,” Buckhorn told the council.

The proposed 2015 budget includes $29 million in short-term borrowing that will boost the city’s construction budget. Rather than borrow long-term through the bond market, Buckhorn proposes going to commercial banks or the Florida Association of Counties to get the municipal equivalent of a 5-year line of credit.

The city will be able to dip into the funding stream as needed for infrastructure projects then repay the money from the general fund, according to finance director Sonya Little.

Buckhorn said the borrowing will help the city get a handle on problems that have been allowed to fester.

“They’re not cheap, but we’re making a commitment to do it,” the mayor said. “That will go a long way to resolving some long-standing infrastructure issues.”

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Among other things, the borrowing will add $6 million to the city’s stormwater project fund.

The fund’s to-do list for 2015 includes:

♦ Work that will begin on improving drainage in a 1,150-acre area of East Tampa bounded by Adamo Drive, North 40th Street, East Hillsborough Avenue and North 50th Street. The $5.4 million first phase will be split with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

♦  Drainage improvements in South Tampa for about a 1,000 acres surrounding the intersection of South Manhattan Avenue and West Vasconia Street. The city will split the $5.4 million cost for the first phase of improvements with Swiftmud.

♦  Flood relief, bike lanes and other improvements to streets in the Drew Park neighborhood in West Tampa.

Buckhorn will also use $16.6 million from that borrowed money to make improvements to Old City Hall, which will turn 100 next year. The plan for the building calls for sealing it better against the weather, improving its plumbing and air-conditioning.

The borrowing will also finance street repaving. Cleveland Street, which has degraded between North Boulevard and Armenia Boulevard, will get $2 million. All told, the city will repair or resurface 63 lane-miles of streets in 2015, about 30 percent more than normal.

After Buckhorn’s presentation, Councilman Mike Suarez said he wants to get a better idea of how the short-term borrowing will affect the city’s overall debt level and how the money, which is not tied to specific city revenues, will be repaid.

“The devil’s in the details,” Suarez said. “The question is how are we backing that up.”

Councilman Harry Cohen, whose South Tampa district is plagued by flooding, welcomed the improvements.

“I do think we’re at a point in some of these neighborhoods where the work has been deferred and it just has to be done,” Cohen said.

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Also on the list of improvements is $300,000 to finance the first phase of restoring and reopening the historic Cuscaden Pool in East Tampa’s V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

The 77-year-old pool has been closed since 2009. It was closed four years after a multimillion renovation because it leaked more than 450,000 gallons of water each year. City council members have spent more than a year urging Buckhorn to put the pool back into service.

The mayor told council members on Thursday he would put $1.5 million in the 2016 budget to do the bricks-and-mortar improvements needed to reopen the pool by the summer of 2016.

“As mayor I’m often forced to choose between passion and the bottom line,” Buckhorn said. “And for the past few years the bottom line has won out.”

Looming retirements in the city’s police department prompted Buckhorn to increase the city’s public safety budget by $10 million for 2015.

Most of the increase will go to hire 30 new police officers to keep the force stable as officers retire. The police department will lose at least 54 people through the city’s deferred-retirement plan in the 2015 budget year. The fire department has 30 people in the same situation, said Mark Bogush, president of the city police and fire pension board.

The city will have to pay for accumulated sick leave and vacation time not used by those retiring employees, Buckhorn said.

Also on the list of public safety spending is more than $5 million to replace aging police cars and fire trucks.

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Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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