The city budget that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn proposed Thursday is a modest but respectable first effort. Despite a fourth consecutive year of declining property values, his 2012 spending plan requires no more layoffs. It invests a bit more in parks, downtown and older neighborhoods and leaves the city with strong credit. Buckhorn can thank his predecessor, Pam Iorio, for cutting the bureaucracy and socking away healthy cash reserves. But the new mayor also found ways in his first budget to strengthen the foundation for the city's recovery.
There is nothing exciting in his spending plan for services and capital projects in the coming year. Buckhorn would boost the fee on electricity service, which would cost homeowners about another $1.50 per month, but keep property tax rates the same. The fee increase, together with spending cuts, $6 million from reserves and better performance than expected from the housing and financial markets, enabled Buckhorn to cover a $35 million deficit for 2012 without mass firings or major cuts to services.
But there is something to be said in this economy about a budget that holds the line and makes even small investments in well-targeted areas. Buckhorn would continue efforts to replace century-old water pipes and other infrastructure. He would boost spending next year to $12 million for roads, sidewalks and other neighborhood projects. The budget includes money to complete another segment of the Riverwalk downtown and to stem saltwater intrusion into the Hillsborough River. And his long-term budget includes tens of millions of dollars for parks, pools and urban renewal. These are projects that maintain the area's quality of life.
Buckhorn could have invested even more by forgoing pay raises to police and other city workers, which are out of line in these times. But for the most part, his spending plan is thoughtful and responsible. It fulfills several campaign pledges to encourage new business and urban development. And to his credit, Buckhorn used the 2012 budget to frame larger decisions in 2013. The city cannot continue to subsidize parking, garbage pickup and other costs without affecting core services or cutting deeply into reserves.
The proposed budget buys the city time to consider consolidating services with other government agencies. The neighborhood investments should help bolster property values and continue the Police Department's remarkable success in reducing crime. And the spending downtown will help maintain the new museums and parks and keep Tampa in the hunt for tourism and business. Buckhorn will need to build on this budget next year. But he has established a fine starting point.