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Tampa's budget is lean and straightforward this year, but trouble may be looming

Bob Buckhorn is presenting the last of his eight budgets as mayor of Tampa before he leaves office next year because of term limits. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Jun. 18, 2018

TAMPA — Tampa City Council members have reacted to Mayor Bob Buckhorn's cautious budget with their own hedge, saying the city's financial outlook could turn if the national and regional economy goes south in the next few months.

Buckhorn has said he won't ask for a property tax increase or borrow from the city's $91.2 million reserve fund to balance the city's roughly $1 billion budget.

Instead, he'll eliminate vacancies, delay equipment purchases like vehicles and put off maintenance on city-owned property.

"This budget doesn't have a lot of frills in it. There won't be any new projects of any significance," Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times last week.

Buckhorn will make his formal budget presentation to City Council on July 19. It will be his eighth and last one before he leaves office next year because of term limits.

Despite a projected windfall in property tax revenue, Buckhorn has asked most departments to trim 3 percent from their budgets. Many cuts might end up being smaller, he said. The police department may pare back by only 1 percent.

Residents shouldn't notice, the mayor said. Library hours will remain the same. Parks and swimming pools will stay open.

"Services won't be cut," Buckhorn said.

Sonya Little, the city's chief financial officer, briefed council members last week on the broad strokes of the city's fiscal health.

A strong economy and buoyant stock market have helped reduce pension fund obligations and delivered a 10 percent bump in property values, reducing an estimated deficit from $13.5 million to $5 million, she said.

It wasn't all good news, however. A $6.8 million payment to retire 1990-era bonds for the city's police headquarters, substations and fire equipment will be due in the fiscal year beginning Oct.1.

Next year, that payment more than doubles to $13.6 million ans remains at that level for several years. And if voters statewide approve an expansion of the homestead exemption it could slash city revenues by another $5 million, Little said.

If the economy tanks when the city is struggling to pay off those debts, and if additional cuts are needed to make up for revenue lost by an expanded homestead exemption, things could get tough.

"The deficit widens in out years, until 2022," Little said.

How much to worry depends less on Tampa's economy than it does on the region and nation.

"It could change at any minute," said council member Charlie Miranda.

"It could be worse, it could also be better than what we're expecting," said council member Harry Cohen, who is running for mayor. "Almost every category is dependent on the economy. We're completely at the mercy of the national and local economy."

Last year, Buckhorn's budget became a sore point for council members who said they wouldn't have authorized $35.5 million for a Julian B. Lane Park makeover if they knew they were going to be presented with a tax increase. After hours of debate then, the council approved a tax increase that raised the average bill $91.

"There's no Julian B. Lane this year," council member Guido Maniscalco told the Times. "It's nothing like last year. I think (approval) will be quick and easy."

The City Council will hold two public hearings on the budget in September. A balanced budget must be approved by the end of that month.

Buckhorn will leave office May 1. That means the next mayor, facing all those daunting economic challenges, will have just a few months to hammer out a new budget.

Aside from the outstanding debt, police, fire and blue-collar union contracts will all be up for renewal next year.

"The new mayor," Buckhorn said, "as soon as they hit the door here, will have negotiations with the unions as well as the normal budget pressures."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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