CLEARWATER — Paul Gibson was elected to City Council in 2007, just in time for an extended economic downturn that strained city finances, resulting in waves of program cuts, layoffs and early retirements.
Most of those cuts were necessary to bring municipal spending in line with revenues, Gibson said Monday.
"If you were to ask the average taxpayer if they've noticed a difference? They would say no," said Gibson, 65, who moved to Clearwater in 1997.
Residents in neighborhoods with shuttered recreation centers or libraries that closed their doors earlier might disagree, but Gibson never wavered in his conviction that spending needed to be reduced, and after barely winning his first race, he cruised to a second term in 2010.
"Most people are just paying their taxes, working every day and not availing themselves of lots of city services," said Gibson, a Realtor.
Gibson's last City Council meeting will be Thursday. He is leaving the council because of term limits, and his seat will be filled by Hoyt Hamilton, who was elected March 11.
The lean years following Gibson's first election have been replaced now with the first whispers of a downtown rebirth, the tentative optimism sparked by corporate relocations and climbing property values in the city.
That economic rebound has been assisted by a City Council largely cured of a "terminal case of spendicitis," Gibson contended. He said his focus has been on "fiscal responsibility" and "looking at long-term planning as more than the next budget cycle."
Drawing on decades of financial experience at major corporations, Gibson has pushed city staff to look at financial issues from a private sector perspective.
"There should be a business case before we make any long-term capital commitments," he said. "Because it's the operating costs that tend to kill you, not the capital cost, which is something that when I arrived hadn't really been thought about."
Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin described city staffers' initial impression of Gibson as "a slash and burn" politician wary of government spending.
"But I learned, and I think a lot of people learned, if you make the business case to you and you make the policy case, you will support initiatives," Irwin said to Gibson at Monday's work session.
Irwin presented Gibson with a going-away gag gift: a plaque congratulating him as a supporter of the city's downtown boat slips. Those slips were approved by the same voters in 2007 who elected one of the project's most vociferous opponents — Gibson.
Counting three years on a town finance committee in Foxboro, Mass., Gibson has now spent a decade in public service. Citizens willing to step up and serve are what makes democracy work, he said.
Gibson said he might watch a few council meetings to check in on his former colleagues — "an intelligent city council" — but he's eager to focus full time on his first love, selling real estate.
Although he plans to spend more time with his three grandchildren in the Washington, D.C. area and will spend two weeks in Italy in June, Gibson has no plans to leave Clearwater, where he lives in a condo on Clearwater Beach.
"I love Clearwater. I always knew I belonged here where the air is clean and the temperatures warm," Gibson said. "As I tell my clients when they're freezing, the only ice here is in our drinks."
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.