TAMPA — More than 600 people packed a room at the Tampa Convention Center on Wednesday to hear Mayor Pam Iorio deliver her annual State of the City speech.
Many of them were rank-and-file city employees, wearing their parks, wastewater and public works uniforms. Foremost on their minds: their jobs. The city is facing a $27 million budget shortfall, and Iorio has said significant layoffs are likely.
But Iorio avoided that topic and instead devoted nearly her entire 15-minute speech to light rail and a likely referendum on a 1-cent sales tax to help pay for it.
"We are the last of the major metropolitan areas in this country that has failed to invest in a modern transit system," she said.
Light rail, she said, will spur private-sector investments and a new type of development focused on urban centers.
"We have to have that future for future job growth, for economic stability," she said.
When she ended her speech, the audience paused before applauding, seemingly surprised that she didn't address job worries.
"We thought we'd hear more about that," said Ray Clark, who helps manage inventory in city warehouses. "I've heard it from various people as we were coming out that she might have discussed jobs and employment."
Clark's job is one of those on the chopping block, with Iorio pressing to privatize warehouse operations.
"Did I misunderstand the purpose of the State of the City?" asked Tampa resident Tonya Wideman, who said she's concerned about the dismantling of parks programs because of the shrinking city budget. She works at the Home Depot, but said she has a lot of friends who work for the city.
"I want to know if they're going to keep their jobs," she said.
Iorio said after the speech that the State of the City address targets not just city workers, but all Tampa residents, as well as people who live in the county. The city's financial situation can't be resolved in the short term, she said.
"We need long-term solutions," she said. "And that's what transit is all about."
Investment in rail, bus service and road improvements through a proposed penny sales tax will spur economic growth and create jobs throughout the city, she said.
Iorio delivered her State of the City remarks after a 15-minute video that highlighted Tampa's growth during difficult economic times. The video talked about federal stimulus dollars that will help pay for, among other things, a downtown development with affordable housing, and a road connecting Interstate 4 to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The video also focused on the opening of the IKEA store, the new Tampa Museum of Art and the renovated Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Iorio started her speech by thanking city employees for making sacrifices, including no pay raises last year.
"It did save jobs," she said.
She then said she wanted to focus on the future, which means she had to talk about transit. She praised Hillsborough County commissioners for voting preliminarily in favor of putting the sales tax referendum on the November ballot.
If the referendum passes, she said, it will "define us."
"This is the big issue of our time," she said. "It will define how we grow and prosper and bring jobs to this community in the future." She said she would devote her last year in office to bringing light rail to Tampa.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.