TAMPA — Soon after unveiling a proposed $754 million budget Thursday, Mayor Pam Iorio began defending one of its most contested provisions: a pay freeze for city employees.
Unions representing the politically powerful police and fire employees have battled the measure for months, but by presenting pay freezes for all city employees in her budget, Iorio puts the final decision before the City Council.
"I know that's tough for them, so I want to give them as much information as possible," Iorio said after the meeting.
A budget must be approved by the City Council before the 2010 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Public hearings will be held later this fall, and changes are expected.
Iorio's proposal holds the tax rate at $5.73 for every $1,000 of taxable property value for a third year.
The Property Appraisers Office places the median home value in Tampa, after exemptions, at $66,200. If the rate is kept, that homeowner would pay $379.33 in city property taxes.
Tampa residents also pay property taxes to the county, school system and other agencies.
The budget would reduce spending by about $82 million, largely due to a reduction in bond money and state loans. To balance the budget, Iorio said she cut about $51 million, more than twice as much as last year.
A $21.5 million decline in property tax revenues and other ailments of the rattled economy left Iorio with less to distribute. Her proposal relies on taking $31 million from reserves to make ends meet, still leaving about $80 million in the pot.
Iorio told the council that personnel expenses have grown during the past three years, despite shedding hundreds of jobs. Since 2007, the city has cut 527 positions, or 10.5 percent of the work force, she said. The plan she released Thursday eliminates 144 positions, 96 of them vacant.
Iorio said eliminating merit and cost-of-living increases for city employees is her only way to rein in employee expenses. The rising cost of pensions and medical benefits aren't within her control.
She said a pay freeze will stave off future layoffs, furloughs or benefit cuts.
"This discussion about pay increases, at least from my view, has nothing to do with how hard people work and what they contribute," Iorio said. "It has to do with our economic situation, plain and simple."
The budget still calls for major investment in city projects, including money to repave roadways, build a fire station in New Tampa, finish 40th Street and continue the Riverwalk.
While some residents might decry the millions spent on those projects while paychecks remain stagnant, Iorio told the council the money for construction and other projects ought to be considered off the table for revisions.
"That's a very common comment that's made," she said. "We're running a big business and I've got a payroll budget. That's what I've got to focus on."
She asked the council to stand by her decision.
"We have to be in this together," Iorio said. "We don't do any favor to any employee by pretending to have more money than we have."
The council thanked the mayor for her leadership and opted not to discuss the budget at length during Thursday's meeting.
"It's not an easy budget, but in your words, it's reasonable and responsible," said councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena. "Thank you ... for your stewardship over the last three years. The fact that our situation, while difficult, isn't dire is because of the cutting of positions that began three years ago."
Staff writer Steven Overly can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.