TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Thursday proposed a $974.2 million budget for next year that would raise the city's property tax rate for the first time since 1989 and use the additional revenue to improve parks, expand fire service and prepare for looming financial challenges.
"I will not be here in two years," the term-limited mayor told the City Council. "It's incumbent on me to leave this city in good shape and to have made the appropriate decisions to prepare for what is coming over the next couple of years.
"Much of what we face today," he said, "is not of our making, but the solutions will be."
As proposed, Tampa's property tax rate would rise from $5.73 to $6.32 in city taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value.
That would raise next year's city property tax bill to $773 — an increase of $140 — for a homeowner who lives in a house assessed at $166,579, the city average. Add on taxes levied by Hillsborough County, the School Board and other agencies, and the total tax will would likely top $2,500.
It is not an increase that Buckhorn said he proposes lightly, but he sees little choice.
"The day of reckoning has come," he said. "I don't like it any more than you do. But we can't continue to grow this city and grow this economy without the appropriate investment."
In the next few years, he expects the city to get squeezed by rising health care and pension costs, the burden of paying off tens of millions of dollars of city debt that was taken on in the mid-1990s but deferred until now and the prospect that voters next year will expand the homestead exemption.
The deferred debt includes a $6 million federal loan used to help develop Centro Ybor and nearly $24 million spent on the fire and police departments in 1996. Because the principal and interest payments on the public safety debt have been put off for 20 years, the city will soon begin making several years of debt payments of more than $13 million a year.
And because of the way that debt was structured, the bonds were not "callable," Buckhorn said, meaning that they could not be refinanced at lower interest rates.
"If we had been able to refinance that debt, this would not be an issue," he said.
If approved in a 2018 referendum, the expanded homestead exemption would reduce city property taxes by an estimated $6 million a year beginning in 2020. Moreover, Buckhorn worries that Florida's Republican-led Legislature could pass more laws to restrict the city's ability to hold money in reserve, borrow funds and raise its property tax rate.
"In the 30 years I've been doing this, I have never seen the attack on local governments I have seen in this last (legislative) session," he said. "This Legislature is hell-bent on doing whatever they can to limit local government and to hamstring our ability to do what we do better than they do, which is provide services and do it as a reasonable (cost) with a reasonable number of employees."
Meanwhile, he said, President Donald Trump's budget seeks to eliminate federal programs that have sent the city tens of millions of dollars in recent years.
But with the additional funds from the tax increase, Buckhorn proposes to:
• Expand space for gymnastics at the New Tampa Community Park Center ($2 million).
• Add rest rooms to Vila Brothers Park in West Tampa ($300,000).
• Renovate a 2-story classroom building at Wellswood Park ($640,000).
• Expand the activity center at Williams Park in East Tampa ($250,000).
• Upgrade Calvin Taylor Park in East Tampa to allow for the relocation of the Yellow Jackets Little League ($250,000).
• Do $14.4 million in transportation projects, more than a third of which will consist of resurfacing roads.
"This budget represents a down payment on our future," Buckhorn said. And in light of the fact that the city's tax base is growing — 9.3 percent this year alone — he offered a quote from former President John F. Kennedy: " 'The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.' … We are in a good place as a community, and if we continue to invest in our community, we will continue to be the city that we all aspire to be."
The budget includes 3 percent raises negotiated with the unions for police, firefighters and general employees. It also would add 79 new positions to bring the city's total payroll to 4,476 full-time positions.
Of those, 48 would go to Tampa Fire Rescue, which is looking to staff the new Fire Station 23 on Trout Creek Drive in New Tampa and provide emergency medical service under a contract with MacDill Air Force Base. Another 19 would go to staff new parks, mainly the $35.5 million Julian B. Lane Park now under construction on the western bank of the Hillsborough River.
The city would maintain reserves of about $95 million, or 23 percent of general spending — higher than the 20 percent that Wall Street credit rating agencies expect.
Council member Mike Suarez said he understood why Buckhorn proposed the budget he did.
"We're stuck in lots of different places, and we have to unstick it somehow," he said. That probably will have something to do with the tax rate, but it's too soon to say where it will end up. Suarez is interested in trying to build an automatic de-escalation into any rate increase, so that it goes back down once the city pays off its old debt. "I don't know if I can do it, but that's what I'm going to ask for."