Communities have two ways to respond to the state's budget crisis. They can accept that the slowdown in housing, tourism and sales will force some difficult spending choices, set priorities and stick to them. Or they can obsess about the short term and forget about positioning their community for the day the economy recovers — which is exactly what some are doing in Tampa.
Members of the City Council have criticized Mayor Pam Iorio's budget and her plan to remake downtown's Curtis Hixon Park. The mayor wants to privatize some back-office jobs and increase garbage collection fees to help shrink next year's $17-million deficit. The outsourcing appears to be a reasonable solution. Doing that and the paying off some city debt would cut the deficit in half. Putting off some capital projects and reducing payroll through attrition likely could shave millions more.
While Iorio is close, her budget needs work. For example, her proposal to save $3-million by shifting some costs for street cleaning to garbage collection customers is unfair. Residential customers should not pay an extra $1.58 per month for a service that benefits the general public.
Yet rather than act as a constructive force, council members keep missing the point. They faulted her privatization plan, which would force layoffs, as mean-spirited. Rather than find the money for street cleaning, they want to explore reducing trash collection from twice a week to once a week — a bad idea for a city of 335,000 in a subtropical climate. The city's poorer neighborhoods already have a problem with rodents, stray dogs and cats. Now some want Iorio to drop her plans for Curtis Hixon Park. That is as shortsighted as the council's other ideas.
The park's $15-million price tag seems excessive. But the city should have some idea this month whether it could pare down some $12.5-million in planned improvements. (The rest of the money has been committed for design and other preconstruction services.) The city need not go overboard on a park that should be mostly passive green space. By the same token, the city needs to redo Curtis Hixon. It made a promise to the people building and buying condos downtown that the park would be a gathering space and a lawn connecting the new arts and children's museums. The money for the park comes from a special tax set aside for downtown improvements. There is no greater need downtown than a signature, functional park.
The council needs to be careful what message it sends by encouraging the mayor to cut essential services and backtrack from the city's commitments. Residents and the business community need to see City Hall as a reliable partner, not some fickle friend who is there only when times are good.