TAMPA — When it comes to government revenue, Tampa hit the bottom of the Great Recession harder than many big cities, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts' American cities project.
More than two-thirds of the 30 cities studied saw local revenues reach their low points by 2010.
But Tampa, Miami and Orlando — the only three Florida cities included in the study — were still in that trough in 2011, two years after the official end of the recession in June 2009.
In 2011, the most recent year included in the study, revenue at Tampa City Hall was 22 percent below 2007's level after adjusting for inflation.
At that point, the only one of the 30 cities that had lost a bigger percentage of pre-recession revenue was Sacramento, Calif. And the city's own budgets show that Tampa's property tax revenue dropped for two more years before edging back up for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
The falloff of property taxes was the lead driver for revenue loss among Florida cities, according to the report. Elsewhere, the big hits came in areas like sales taxes (Atlanta, Denver and San Diego), local income taxes (New York and Cincinnati), fees (Portland, Ore.) or federal and state aid (Boston, Cleveland and Washington, among others).
Florida cities were not only hurt by the housing crash, according to the Pew report, "America's Big Cities in Volatile Times." Exacerbating their losses were Florida's Save Our Homes cap on increases to assessments of homesteaded properties and a 2007 law requiring a one-time rollback of property tax levies. Then, in 2008, Florida voters approved Amendment 1, which expanded the Save Our Homes cap and doubled the size of the homestead exemptions.
"Back in 2007, the Florida property market was very robust, and you saw double-digit gains in property tax values year over year," said Kil Huh, who directs Pew's work on state and local fiscal health. "So what the Florida Legislature attempted to do was enact some sort of property tax relief. I don't think anyone saw that there would be a housing market (collapse) and a financial crisis in the coming years."
Tampa looks better than other cities when it comes to how it spent its reserves, which Pew said it used in "a very limited way."
In contrast, Chicago spent its reserves before 2007, leaving it scrambling to raise money by leasing city assets. Denver exhausted its reserves too soon, then cut spending and froze hiring — steps Tampa took early on. Sacramento spent enough of its savings to hurt its ability to deal with future fiscal challenges.
Reserves in the 30 cities dropped from an average of 18 percent of general fund revenues in 2007 to 14 percent in 2011, Huh said.
By comparison, during her administration, Mayor Pam Iorio built up city reserves and a hurricane emergency fund that, at their peak, exceeded a combined total of $150.3 million, or about 36 percent of the city's operating expenses. Since then, Mayor Bob Buckhorn has used some reserves to balance the budget, but by controlling costs has maintained the rainy day fund at 25 percent of expenses.
The study does say Tampa faces two potential challenges.
First, pensions: The Pew report says that Tampa's pension funding levels slipped from 104 percent 2007 to 95 percent in 2010. Tampa has two pension plans — one for general employees and another for fire and police — and Pew's numbers are a combination of both, Huh said.
Currently, the general employees pension is funded at 99 percent, city chief of staff Dennis Rogero said. Funding of the fire and police pension fund has risen from 89 percent a couple of years ago to 92 percent now — still good enough to put it in the top 1 percent of all the nation's pension funds, Rogero said. Also, depending on funding levels and actuarially projected rates of return, the city and employees in the fire and police pension can be required to contribute more.
The Pew study also raised a question about retiree health care. Tampa, it notes, had not set aside funding for retiree health care commitments as of 2010.
There's a reason for that, Rogero said. Florida law requires the city to provide retirees with health coverage, but the retirees themselves pay 100 percent of their premiums. The city contributes to its employees' health insurance costs, but not to retirees'.
Plus, the city has taken steps to reduce health care costs for its employees and retirees. In 2011, the city opened two wellness centers — one on N Himes Avenue and one in Brandon. The centers offer help with a variety of conditions: quitting smoking, overcoming the flu, coping with allergies and addressing long-term problems like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Through the end of this year, the city expects to have spent about $7.87 million on the centers since they began. Combined with savings from United Health Care, the centers have saved the city an estimated $4 million.
"From nearly the very beginning … they have been utilized at a rate higher than we anticipated," human resources director Kimberly Crum told the City Council last week.
Through June 30, the wellness centers had nearly 31,000 visits from more than 5,200 patients. Two-thirds were employees. The rest were either dependents or retirees not on Medicare and their dependents. In addition, the wellness centers have filled nearly 20,500 prescriptions.
"The wellness centers are a cost avoidance," Rogero said. "Our health insurance costs are still going up, but we don't think they're going up nearly as much as they would have in the absence of these wellness centers."