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A skewed budget plan in Tampa

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco has proposed a spending plan that doesn't meet the needs or priorities of city voters. As it chooses what to fund with the Community Investment Tax, the City Council needs to strike a balance between cultural projects and the bread-and-butter needs of the neighborhoods.

Greco's plan skews the budget toward big-ticket luxuries. It is encouraging to see the mayor support a downtown arts district and the expansion of a genuine asset, the city-owned Lowry Park Zoo. But of the $55-million available over the next five years, Greco would spend $30-million on the arts district and $14-million at Lowry Park, leaving only one-fifth of the budget for other citywide needs. Of that remaining $11-million, Greco would spend millions on improvements downtown and equipment for City Hall, leaving little for curbs, sidewalks, sewers and other neighborhood safety and beautification projects.

The CIT is an appropriate source to jump-start major development campaigns, including the arts district and zoo expansion. Lowry Park in particular is a worthy cause. The zoo is entertaining and educational, has broad local appeal and has succeeded in using public money to leverage private-sector support. But Greco's numbers are out of whack. For example, his plan leaves nothing to fix drainage problems in West Tampa, where front yards double as ditches and mosquito nests. It would put off for years curbs, sidewalks and other drainage projects that Greco promised the CIT would provide.

Council members Mary Alvarez and Gwen Miller should be especially adamant about shifting money toward the residential areas. The arts district doesn't warrant $30-million. Of the $14-million for Lowry Park, $4-million would go to relocate ball fields and clear the way for zoo expansion. That much, and a small commitment toward the remaining $10-million, is reasonable. But without a broad rearranging of Greco's lopsided priorities, the zoo and the neighborhoods have little room to compete.

Voters passed the half-cent sales tax in 1996, according to a St. Petersburg Times-Fox 13 Eyewitness News exit poll, in the belief that the money would be spent primarily for schools, public safety and a backlog of needs _ roads, sewers, parks and the like. "We're not going to blow it," Greco promised at the time. But that's precisely what this budget does. It pits culture against potholes, rather than accommodating the two. The council should heed the residents' complaints and shift much more money toward improving where and how people live.