There is a bright spot in the cautious spending plans prepared by local governments in Hillsborough County. More of them are putting extra money next year into repairs and other big-ticket improvements — fixing up parks, replacing old storm drains and filling some of the cracks in the transit system. The county has a long way to go, but this investment in critical infrastructure is a welcome start.
The recession and six straight years of declining tax revenues have hit the operations side hard, as Hillsborough-area agencies have balanced their budgets by slashing jobs, freezing pay and curbing some public services. But there was another casualty under the radar: Governments scaled back tens of millions of dollars in public works projects. Spending on new roads, parks, water and sewer lines and other essentials for urban living was curtailed or postponed. Even if the region begins to experience modest growth within the next two years, as officials expect, it could take another decade before Hillsborough is anywhere close to a recovery on its capital plan.
But 2013 would mark a step in the right direction. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn would spend $105 million on capital projects next year, a 31 percent increase from 2012. The work includes water and wastewater improvements throughout the city. Buckhorn would complete the Riverwalk through downtown, repair parks and pools and upgrade the city's utility systems.
Tampa International Airport would more than double capital spending next year, to more than $67 million. The money would pay for upgrades to the curbside areas, new boarding bridges and improvements to passenger and rental car facilities.
Hillsborough County is looking to increase its capital budget about 50 percent next year, to nearly $200 million, with new money for parks and fire stations. The county will also spend the next year exploring more reliable funding sources for a range of capital projects, from roads to recreation centers.
And Hillsborough's bus agency is making noises about the need to address a chronically underfunded mass transit system. Hillsborough leaders still need to get serious about financing a modern transportation system, the biggest drawback to attracting jobs and industries.
But these capital investments are well-timed to position the county as the economy recovers. They send a message to the business community that the government will protect its key infrastructure even in tough economic times. And they mark an admission by political leaders that the county needs to be more realistic about meeting its long-term capital needs. That change in thinking is as important as the new dollars themselves.