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Proposed Tampa budget up 14 percent

Mayor Dick Greco on Thursday unveiled a $585-million city budget heavy on construction to shore up aging facilities and provide for growth.

The city would spend 14 percent more money than during the fiscal year that ends Sept 30. But Tampa's property tax rate and fees for water, sewer and garbage service would remain the same.

"I'm very satisfied with being able to make do with what we have," Greco said.

Spending on new construction would grow 60 percent to $144-million, largely paid for through utility bonds already sold or set to be issued next year.

The biggest projects include rebuilding the aging McKay Bay garbage incinerator, expanding the Hillsborough River water treatment plant, and adding parking, recreation facilities and an electric trolley between downtown and Ybor City.

Even with the tax rate holding steady at 6.539 mills, the city expects property tax revenues to grow about 8 percent to $78-million. That's due to increasing property values and new property added to the tax rolls, said Henry Ennis, the city's finance director.

Operating expenses, largely employee costs, will grow only about 4 percent, he said. Overall, the city will add 78 jobs for a total of 4,504.

The parking department will get nearly half of the new hires, mostly to staff the new Ybor City garage and the expanded Fort Brooke garage.

Tampa police will pick up nine positions to help field a new traffic squad. The officers will zero in on speeders in neighborhoods as the city lowers the speed limit to 25 mph in residential areas.

The Police Department also will buy 187 new vehicles next year. That would achieve the mayor's goal of giving every sworn officer a take-home car and ensure that no police vehicle is more than 7 years old, Greco said.

City Council members took their copies of the budget with smiles Thursday. But one, Bob Buckhorn, wished that Greco had delivered it earlier. Public hearings are set for Sept. 9 and Sept. 23, and members have held two budget workshops without final numbers to chew over.

"It's difficult to digest this in so short a period of time," Buckhorn said. "The sooner we can get people engaged in the issues, the better. A month is not enough time to do that."

Council member Linda Saul-Sena gently reminded Greco and his staff that the proposed budget isn't carved in stone. "Just because it's printed doesn't mean we can't make changes," she said.

Indeed, members of a group opposed to transferring operation of the city's Rogers Park Golf Course to the YMCA argued Thursday that $1.5-million for course improvements should be included in the budget.

Besides robust economic growth, the city has benefitted from interest rates of 5 percent or lower in recent years, Ennis said.

That has kept down the cost of borrowing money for big public works projects. Most of the bonds are paid off through utility fees and taxes.

The biggest construction job is the $88-million garbage incinerator reconstruction. Required by the federal government to clean up emissions, the 32-month project will cost the city nearly $33-million next year.

Also in the works is expanding the water plant's capacity by 25 percent to process up to 100-million gallons a day. That will cost $45-million over two years.

Bond money also will bankroll about $25-million for more parking next year.

That includes cash for the 1,200-space garage set to open in Ybor City in October, the four-floor addition to the Fort Brooke garage, a 300-space garage next to police headquarters and downtown and South Howard Avenue lots.

The city expects to spend the first $7-million of $17.5-million in bonds next year for recreation facilities at 16 locations throughout Tampa.

Another high-profile project kicking off next year is the $24-million electric trolley running 2.3 miles from Ybor City to the Tampa Convention Center.

Most of the money will come from state and federal grants and assessments to businesses. But the city will contribute $4.4-million from bonds backed by the local-option gas tax.