Pam Iorio's last budget as Tampa mayor could be the most difficult of her eight years in office. Despite cutting the city's workforce by 10 percent over three years to cope with the recession, the city still faces declining tax revenues, a $27 million budget shortfall and higher expenses for pensions and other employee costs. The city will need to freeze salaries again this year, reassess jobs and pay scales and get serious about consolidating some services with Hillsborough County government.
The investments Iorio made in parks, neighborhoods, drainage and other bread-and-butter needs since first being elected in 2003 have softened the recession's blow on the city. By attending early on to the basics, Iorio has enabled neighborhoods to maintain a quality of life even as the city struggles. She pared back major capital costs for the new arts museum and other expenses while pushing through new investments in the city's aging stormwater system. These priorities will make it easier for whomever succeeds her in 2011 to preserve essential services.
Despite fewer employees, the city's pension costs have skyrocketed due to the declining stock market and more retirees. Iorio needs to review which programs are essential, but also the responsibilities and pay scales of senior managers. This is the first step toward controlling pension and benefits costs. The mayor needs to assure taxpayers that the necessary number of people are earning the right amount before she considers hiking fees for city services and recreation programs.
Iorio was right to insist on a pay freeze last year, despite the vocal opposition by the police union in particular. That freeze needs to extend through at least 2011. The savings will prevent the need for additional layoffs, and in the case of firefighters and police, who have been spared in this recession, it is the least they can contribute in these tough economic times. The city should continue offering one-year labor contracts with its employees' unions, which offer the flexibility to reward city employees as the economy recovers. As hard as the one-year pay freeze was for employees, the city still relied on $31 million in reserves to balance this year's budget. It should not lean as heavily on reserves next year — and certainly not for salaries.
The city has saved millions of dollars by cross-training staff and finding other efficiencies. But it needs to redouble efforts to consolidate services with county government. The city and county serve distinct populations, but there are plenty of areas — park maintenance, utility work and back-office operations — where the two governments might be able to cut overhead costs. Those discussions, which have never risen to a serious level despite the recession, need to take on a new urgency. This is a new era, and local governments need a sustainable business model.