TAMPA — Lou Russo handled the tough jobs, the ones nobody else wanted or could handle. Tampa's former finance director oversaw city financing of several major projects — the Tampa Convention Center, Tampa Bay Times Forum and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts among them — despite fluctuations in the city's coffers and the economy.
He could explain complicated financial proposals in user-friendly reports. He did not mind taking the heat that came from sitting at the right hand of three mayors over 15 years. Each evening as he returned home, he made sure to leave those cares outside: mentally hanging them on a particular tree branch, he told his family.
Mr. Russo, who balanced bluntness and diplomacy as finance director for Mayors Bob Martinez, Sandy Freedman and Dick Greco, died Oct. 7 at St. Joseph's Hospital after a brief illness. He was 84.
He was working as finance director for the Hillsborough County School District in the late 1970s when he got to know Martinez, then the owner Cafe Sevilla, one of Mr. Russo's favorite restaurants.
"He could get at complex things and reduce them to street language," said Martinez, who later served as governor.
In his first few years with the city, Mr. Russo spearheaded the financing behind the Performing Arts Center (now the Straz), the Tampa Convention Center, a waste-to-energy plant, and water and sewer projects. He also sat on a senior staff committee with the mayor and other public officials.
Mr. Russo stayed on with Freedman until 1993, when he quietly retired. He emerged from retirement in 1995 to serve as finance director for the first year and a half of Greco's term.
At times he found himself in stormy seas. Residents questioned the city's backing of the Florida Aquarium or a $23 million bond issue for a new downtown police station. Mr. Russo also stood firm on the Straz, insisting on $500,000 in support even as the County Commission voted against contributing the same amount.
"He was at the point of the spear," said Peter Mooy, his son-in-law and a retired Air Force colonel. He was noted for telling mayors, 'We need to come up with something different, because I see problems with this.' "
Louis Paul Russo was born in Tampa and graduated from Jefferson High School. He attended Georgia Tech before entering the Army in 1946, where he designed gallows for the execution of war criminals in Japan. He married Alice Esperante, his high-school sweetheart, and graduated from Florida State University with an accounting degree.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.