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Ahead of the next recession, Tampa mayoral candidates want to build reserves, invest in technology

Economic expansions average about six years. This one is in its 10th. So Tampa's next mayor could face some hard decisions about handling city spending in a downturn.
Published Feb. 21, 2019

TAMPA — When you're nearly 10 years into an economic expansion, and the average upswing lasts about six, it's only natural to ask how long the good times will last.

For the seven candidates running for mayor of Tampa, this is more than an academic question.

Much of the money that runs City Hall comes from property taxes, so a recession, especially one hitting the real estate market, can put the city into a deep hole. Consider this: The Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009, but city property tax revenues did not climb back to their 2007 pre-recession peak until just last year.

GET READY: State economist warns Florida lawmakers of looming recession

"It's survivable. It's not easy," says Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who will leave office on May 1 because of term limits.

"The key will be for the next mayor to keep our employee count down and not just let it explode during the good times, because bodies are expensive," he says. Pay will be an issue right away since the new mayor will be negotiating contracts for the city's unions with police, firefighters and general employees during the first months of the new administration.

The candidates vying to succeed Buckhorn — Jane Castor, Harry Cohen, Dick Greco Jr., Topher Morrison, David A. Straz Jr., Mike Suarez and Ed Turanchik — have widely varying degrees of experience and familiarity with the city's $1.03 billion budget.

But going into the March 5 election, all have thoughts on how to prepare for the worst. Often, these include investing in new technology, boosting reserves, or both.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: What plans do Tampa's candidates for mayor have for business?

Harry Cohen

After eight years as the chairman of the City Council's finance committee, Cohen arguably has more hands-on experience with the city's budget than any other candidate. He expects Tampa to grow "at a fairly healthy pace for some time to come."

"But let's face it," he adds, a slump would "be a severe challenge for us. Belt-tightening will take place."

Along with paying for core operations — such as police, fire, utilities and garbage collection — Cohen says it's essential to put money into city reserves, which currently stand at $92.8 million, or 21 percent of general operating spending. Healthy reserves prop up good bond ratings. And those allow the city to borrow at low interest rates, "which means more money available for everything else," he says.

Cohen also wants to work with the Legislature in an attempt to expand the city's communication services tax to cover cell phones. It applies only to land lines and cable television, and the city has seen revenues fall from nearly $30 million a year in 2009 to $17.5 million a year now.

"As people have moved from land lines to cell phones they have basically gotten a tax cut without realizing it and that has been a big blow to the city's general fund," Cohen says. "We need to see if we can correct what I would consider to be almost a loophole. It's just been an unintended consequence of a change in technology."

Mike Suarez

Suarez, an insurance agent who has served on the City Council for eight years, has contended in recent years that Buckhorn's budgets failed to take a first-things-first approach to the city's obligations.

In 2017, Suarez voted against a proposed Buckhorn budget that he described as "political malfeasance" . He said the mayor hadn't done enough to prepare for repaying several years of balloon payments on $24 million borrowed during the administration of former Mayor Dick Greco (the father of candidate Dick Greco Jr.). From the start, city officials delayed repayment of the debt for 20 years, which added tens of millions of dollars in interest to several years of payments that started to become due two years ago.

That, Suarez says, has made the next mayor's job harder, especially if the economy falters.

"If we have a recession, it depends on what the recession looks like," he says. "If it's deep enough that people are closing businesses and losing jobs,'' he says, "we're probably going to look at cutting back on a lot of things that we're planning now," such as filling open positions.

The city's economic development office is "the most important thing we're going to have to deal with," Suarez says. He says he'll pursue a broader mix of potential corporate relocations and aim to land regional headquarters as opposed to business services centers that focus on operations like accounting, human resources and information technology.

Suarez says the city can strengthen its finances while the economy is good by investing in technology to make City Hall more efficient "so that we can do more with less if we need to."

"We have invested very little in our technology," he says. The city needs to create better ways to collect things like code enforcement and parking revenues.

"I'd rather invest now while we maybe have some additional dollars and can do it," he says, "than to wait until the recession" and say, " 'Wow, now we're going to have to hammer people to try to get money back from them based on the fact that we have all this outstanding dollars that we haven't collected.' "

Jane Castor

"You prepare as much as possible," says former police Chief Jane Castor, who ran a city department with a 2019 budget ($160 million) that's not far from the total amount the city takes in from property taxes ($200 million).

Often "you can't exert a great deal of control, so you need to control everything that you can, and one of the ways would be to put away as much as possible in reserves," she says.

Beyond that, Castor says she would work to manage growth so that in a downturn "maybe we don't get caught the way we were when we had all of that empty housing." She also wants to invest in technology to help deliver city services more efficiently.

"We're not going to have the luxury of increasing our city staff as population increases, so we're going to have to find other ways to provide services," she says. "Technology is one of the areas that we will focus on."

Ed Turanchik

"You need to try to plan and prepare," says Turanchik, who served on the Hillsborough County Commission during a mild recession in the early 1990s and had first-hand experience with the real estate crash as a private developer and home builder.

"I want to move toward a four-year budget plan," he says.

Like Suarez, he says City Hall should have planned sooner for the balloon payments now coming due from the Greco administration. Instead, he says, it "invested in projects with funds that could have been used to mitigate the consequence of probably the worst deal in the history of bad deals."

Turanchik says a longer-term budget (the city now does a budget every year) would facilitate better planning for how the city spends:

• Proceeds from the half-cent sales tax authorized by county voters in 1996 to pay for Raymond James Stadium, schools and other projects. It expires after 2026.

• Hundreds of millions of dollars that will be available for transportation projects through the increase in Hillsborough County's sales tax approved by voters last year.

Even in a recession, he says, certain transportation elements such as a "greenway" biking and hiking corridor from Port Tampa to New Tampa "could be done no matter what."

David A. Straz Jr.

A retired banker and philanthropist, Straz says the first thing the city needs to do is rebuild its reserves, which were at a record 25 percent of general spending when former Mayor Pam Iorio left office in 2011.

"There's not much of that left," Straz says. In fact, the city's rainy day fund now stands at 21 percent of general spending.

In 2011, Straz served as a volunteer advisor to mayor-elect Buckhorn, doing a close review of the city budget before Buckhorn was sworn in. As mayor, Straz says he would do a citywide audit of spending as soon as he gets into office and has talked about cutting as much as 10 percent from the city's budget, an idea that Cohen says is unrealistic.

Among other things, he says one thing that needs further scrutiny are ambulance fees, which he says should be sufficient to replace the city's ambulance fleet more often, but are being spent elsewhere.

Topher Morrison

Morrison, a business consultant, says cities that weather recessions the best are those that are most self-reliant and have the most robust bases of small businesses.

So to prepare for Tampa's next downturn, Morrison advocates investing more in information technology and:

• Educating small business owners on grants and assistance available to them, and promoting small businesses by holding regular small business fairs in different parts of the city "like we have food truck rallies."

• Becoming more innovative about how the city generates revenue. One idea: Buy a MacRebur road machine, which mixes waste plastic with asphalt to create a cheaper road surface. Morrison said the city could not only provide for itself, but could sell the product to the state and other communities at a profit.

"Roads are essentially recession-proof," he says. "You get potholes, they've got to get fixed."

Dick Greco Jr.

A former Hillsborough circuit judge and the son of the former mayor by the same name, Greco says "definitely we don't want to overextend ourselves" but says it's hard for anyone outside City Hall "really to see where the city budget is."

"I'd have to get into office to see exactly what we're talking about as to what's available, but we've got some lessons we could learn from the past," he says. "We just can't go wild, building, building, building, building, especially the city."

Beyond that, he says he would focus on the basics — public safety, sidewalks, traffic signals — but "if we were talking about having funds available, new projects that would be very costly would be on a back burner."

Above all, Greco says, the mayor needs to be transparent.

"When bad things have to happen — if you had to terminate positions or put (off) projects, some of which certain neighborhoods really need, want and expect — the mayor needs to get out there and let people know why," he says.

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