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Tampa faces $26.7 million budget shortfall next year

TAMPA — Red-light cameras are bringing in twice the fines Tampa officials expected, but that's not nearly enough to close a gaping hole in city revenues heading into next year.

City officials originally projected that the cameras, which nab violators at more than a dozen of the city's busiest intersections, would bring in $2 million in fines this year.

Thursday night, city chief financial officer Sonya Little told the City Council that red-light camera revenue for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 is now expected to be about $4 million.

That helps the budget, but Little still anticipates that general fund revenues for the 2012-13 fiscal year will fall nearly $26.7 million short of forecasted expenses.

That has city officials looking at cutting department budgets by 5 percent and searching for any other savings they can find.

"We're at a point now where we are picking all the low-hanging fruit that we possibly can to make it all work," Little said.

Through April, trends in the city's general and utility tax fund — the source of funds for police, fire rescue, parks and recreation and the support services needed to run City Hall — are leading city officials to expect they'll end the year with a little less revenue and slightly more in expenses than they had planned for in this year's $765 million budget.

While the red-light camera fines are up, some other revenues appear to be falling short of projections. Those include sales taxes, building permit fees, electric utility and communications services taxes and the Tampa Electric franchise fee. Little said the utility's franchise fee revenue might have been reduced by an unseasonably warm winter, but could go up if the summer is unusually hot.

At the same time, while the city's overall personnel costs are running more than $4 million under budget, those savings are largely counterbalanced by higher-than-budgeted costs for fuel, overtime and employee pensions, which have not been helped by investment earnings that are at "historical lows," Little said. Pension expenses are expected to go up next year, too.

With the housing market still woozy, property tax revenues are expected to drop next year, but property values are expected to decrease by less than 1.5 percent. That's better than the 4 percent drop officials originally feared.

Outside the general fund, the water and wastewater funds are expected to be bright spots. Solid waste, once on its way to exhausting its available cash, now is expected to run a slight surplus, thanks to a series of rate increases, approved in February, that will be phased in through 2015.

The parking fund still is loaded with debt, so while the city's garages, lots and metered spaces are intended to support themselves, Tampa officials expect to transfer money from the general fund to cover a deficit. The good news, Little said, is that because the parking division has reduced expenses and increased revenues, the deficit will be less than $5 million this year — not the $6.3 million that was projected.

Going into next year, officials are working on the assumption that the red-light cameras will produce another $4 million in revenue, but they expect that at some point the number of drivers receiving the $158 tickets will start to fall.

"Eventually, they'll stop running red lights, and we'll stop collecting revenues at those intersections," council member Lisa Montelione said.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn is expected to present his proposed city budget for next year in about a month, and the council will hold public hearings on the plan on Sept. 13 and 27.

Last year, Buckhorn's administration had to close a $34.5 million shortfall in the general fund.

To do that, the city did not increase the property tax rate, but did raise the Tampa Electric franchise fee, which cost the utility's city customers $1.50 more per month on their power bills.

The city also cut 21 vacant positions, carried forward $9 million in money that was budgeted but not spent, used $6 million in reserves and factored in increased revenue from red-light cameras and stepped-up efforts to collect unpaid EMS bills and code enforcement fines.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Tampa faces $26.7 million budget shortfall next year 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 11:57pm]

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