Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn embraced the right priorities with the 2014 budget he proposed Thursday. The additional money for parks, neighborhoods and code enforcement will make the city more attractive, and new spending downtown on infrastructure, cultural facilities and wireless Internet service will continue to build the city center as a place for business and residents.
With the economic recovery still under way, Buckhorn didn't have much room to work, and next year's spending plan is more solid defense than bold offense. But it balances cautious fiscal policy with the larger need to make the city more livable and positioned to grow.
There is little here to get excited about. The mayor didn't use his spending plan to launch any new major initiative. What the budget does instead is mark a turning point; after seven years of declining revenue, the city — while keeping property tax rates the same — is expected to take in an additional $7.3 million next year, thanks to a rebounding housing market and growth in real estate values. That new money helped close the deficit next year and enabled Buckhorn to fund some immediate priorities, such as a modest increase in the number of code enforcement inspectors and public safety improvements. He was right not to go hog wild. The city faces no dire spending need, and moving incrementally is the way to go as the uneven recovery continues.
Still, the budget responds to the moment in several ways. It includes new money for lights, crosswalks and sidewalks on some of the most dangerous streets, a commitment the city needed to make in the wake of several pedestrian deaths in east and north Tampa. The modest increase in the number of code enforcement inspectors, to 31 from 29, is an acknowledgement the city needs to crack down on slumlords and irresponsible homeowners. The new downtown infrastructure sends a message to business that the city center is growing into a 24/7 destination. And the new money for parks and bicycle lanes, spread across the city, will give a boost to the neighborhoods and add to the appeal of urban living.
The 2 percent pay increase that Buckhorn proposes for all city workers in reasonable. City Hall has cut its workforce by nearly one-fifth since the recession; the modest increase recognizes that those remaining workers are doing more. The more problematic issue is that Buckhorn is using reserves again to balance the budget. While the deficit is largely driven by unexpected convention losses and one-time equipment costs, the administration must break the reliance on reserves. And it needs to think long term about how the city can afford to replace its aging infrastructure more quickly.
Buckhorn, though, has put the budget to the right uses and spread the money fairly around the neighborhoods. Several initiatives will leverage private-sector spending, priming the pump for new development and stronger property growth next year. It is a balanced, forward-looking approach that buys valuable time.