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A Times Editorial

Hunkering down in tough times

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's proposed city budget could come with a title: "Do No Harm." With tax revenue plummeting and personnel costs swelling because of pension obligations, the city is hunkering down like most Americans to ride out this recession.

There is no money for raises or grand public works projects. Nor will there be a tax increase. The city would rely heavily — perhaps too heavily — on its reserves to cover next year's budget. City Council members need to look for other savings and help sell the austerity plan. It easily could be worse in 2010-11.

Iorio would spend slightly more in 2009-10 on general public services — police, fire, parks and the like — and keep the tax rate the same. But the added spending would go for employee benefits, not expanded public services. While the city would increase spending $1.5 million, to $425 million overall for day-to-day operations, the major driver is the $9 million needed to cover additional pension and health benefit costs. Benefit costs are expected to grow 18 percent in 2010 even after three years of layoffs that have reduced the city work force by 10 percent. Iorio's proposal for a one-year pay freeze clearly makes sense. The city may have to pare its work force even more. It certainly cannot continue to give the police and fire unions, especially, excessive pay and cost-of-living increases when it negotiates new contracts.

The budget balances economy with the need to meet essential obligations. Iorio's proposals to reduce overtime, delay purchases of vehicles and equipment and postpone big-ticket infrastructure projects would trim millions from the budget. The public wants the city in these tight economic times to focus its resources on front-line services.

But the mayor was right even amid the grim economy to push ahead with capital projects, including neighborhood work. She proposes spending $9 million in improvements to roads and sidewalks. Other work includes repairs to Ballast Point Park off Bayshore and the Seminole Garden Center. The city's investments in neighborhoods under Iorio have returned great dividends to the city. Together with the Tampa Police Department's focus on community policing, they have helped lower the city crime rate another 18 percent so far this year — and 46 percent since Iorio took office in 2003. It would be pound-foolish to reverse these neighborhood priorities now.

Other significant capital investments in Iorio's overall $754 million budget plan include a New Tampa fire station; replacement of 100-year-old water pipes; new storm drains; and energy-efficiency measures that will save the city millions of dollars annually over time.

But Iorio's use of $31 million from reserves to cover a $51 million shortfall is of concern. Officials said the move would not hurt the city's borrowing ability because it still would have $80 million in reserves — the equivalent of about 20 percent of its operating budget. The experts recommend at least 15 percent. (The $80 million does not include another $7.6 million the city has set aside for natural disaster recovery.) But the city cannot rely on reserves to cover operating costs indefinitely. And it's far from clear when the economy will fully rebound.

Council members and the mayor need to get a fix on how many employees the city needs and be realistic about supporting those needs long term. In all likelihood, the trade-offs next year will be even worse.

Hunkering down in tough times 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 6:33pm]
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