TAMPA - Will the next mayor of Tampa support a property tax increase?
Most of the nine mayoral candidates have pledged to improve city services. And there is a pile of debt that is expected to grow until at least 2021 that will add about $13.6 million to the city's tab during the next fiscal year.
But when the candidates were asked at a mayoral forum Tuesday whether they would support a millage rate increase, a clear answer was hard to find.
Former police chief Jane Castor said Mayor Bob Buckhorn had proposed an increase in 2017 that would have taken care of the debt, but City Council "whittled down" the request.
She didn't, however, pledge to pursue a tax increase that would plug the gap. Instead, she talked about cutting services and positions.
"We have to look at ways to continue not only to bring in funding to the city but also to make sure we don’t do across-the-board cuts," Castor said. She said cuts need to be "surgical."
When asked for clarification later, she told the Tampa Bay Times a tax increase would be "a last resort."
Two other mayoral candidates, Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, also clarified after the nearly two-hour forum that they wouldn't rule out a tax increase. Cohen also said it would be a "last resort" while Suarez said it would be a budget-by-budget evaluation.
Retired banker and philanthropist David Straz was the only candidate to explicitly oppose an increase in the city's 6.2076 millage rate.
"I'm not in favor of raising taxes," he said at the Armature Works event. In fact, Straz pledged to cut 10 percent from the city's approximately $1 billion budget.
Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said he wasn't "a tax and spend kind of guy" and said he'd like to emulate his eight years on the commission, in which the board cut the millage rate every year.
Small business branding consultant Topher Morrison said he would eliminate wasteful spending. He mentioned building a third city employee health center on the city's north side to reduce health care costs. He would also pave roads with plastic ocean waste instead of asphalt to save money, he said.
Candidates LaVaughn King, Dick Greco Jr. and Michael Hazard were invited but didn't attend.
The campaign's sixth forum was organized by real estate and construction companies and many of the questions involved how the candidates planned to continue growth and development.
The candidates agreed the city faces an affordable housing crisis though they had different approaches to fix it.
Straz advocated letting the private sector take the lead on the problem with help from willing banks and city and federal aid. He said he had hired an African-American staffer to "help me in the urban core."
As in previous forums, his opponents pushed back. This time, Turanchik said that government has a duty to create affordable housing when the private market doesn't offer the conditions to do so.
Cohen touted tiny houses and container homes, the subject of a recent council workshop. Suarez said he would work to reduce the rising cost of land.
Castor, like several other candidates, said the city had to prevent gentrification from pushing out longtime residents.
"We cannot push our community out of the city of Tampa," Castor said.
Added Cohen: "People who work in the city ought to be able to live in the city."
Other ideas bubbled up Tuesday. Suarez vowed to fix every reported pothole within two weeks, even if he had to do it himself. Morrison said the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority should be made as free as possible to encourage fewer cars and to make Tampa a more attractive destination for millennials.
And an unusual format allowing each candidate 10 minutes to introduce themselves led to some revealing moments.
Straz said his mother lent him the money to buy his first bank. He listed his philanthropic activities in Tampa before saying the mayor's job wasn't alluring for its power or salary. "I don't need it for my resume. I certainly don't need it for the salary."
And Turanchik told the audience his father-in-law invented a carnival scam called the "man-eating chicken," in which gullible customers were ushered into a tent after paying a dollar to see a "big old fat guy eating fried chicken."
"My father-in-law was a scoundrel. He's passed away so I can say that," Turanchik said to laughter.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago .