Tampa City Council gets sobering news on pandemic effects on city budget

City budget officials say they don’t anticipate layoffs or furloughs, but the loss to city coffers is nearly $23 million so far.
Tampa City Hall.
Tampa City Hall. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]
Published May 19, 2020|Updated May 20, 2020

TAMPA — Uncertainty reigned at a special City Council meeting Tuesday as budget officials presented a grim picture of pandemic-induced revenue losses while remaining cautiously optimistic that a conservative budget, healthy reserves and a good credit rating will stave off disaster for now.

But what lies ahead in the months and years to come will render budget-making an exceedingly difficult project, budget officials said.

“It is simply unknown,” said Dennis Rogero, the city’s chief financial officer. “No matter what sources you turn to, no matter what experts you turn to, the level of uncertainty is absolutely unprecedented.”

So far, the city has spent $11.7 million in its emergency response to the coronavirus, nearly as much as it did after 2017′s Hurricane Irma. Purchases of personal protection equipment, overtime and $8.5 million in relief efforts for city residents and businesses make up the bulk of those costs.

At the same time, the city has seen $22.8 million in revenue losses, including big drops in sales and fuel taxes, and nearly $6 million in losses in both Convention Center business and parking fees, Rogero said.

To cope, the city has deferred $12.5 million, including a police body camera program of nearly $1 million. Other measures include freezing 26 positions until October and eliminating two vacant positions in the city’s legal department. The city is also restructuring $5 million in its debt and deferring $700,000 in equipment purchases.

But, Rogero said, the city isn’t planning to lay off workers or make them take furloughs.

“The city has stayed ‘right-sized’ since the Great Recession," Rogero said, explaining that many of the 700 positions eliminated nearly a decade ago were never filled.

And, although the city has spent money from emergency reserves normally dedicated to hurricane damage, it hasn’t touched the more than $100 million in general reserves. At this time it doesn’t plan to do so, said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.

Federal and state aid may help plug the gap. And low interest rates make it a good time to issue debt, budget officials said.

Helping matters was that Castor’s first budget, passed in October, was a conservative one, with no big-ticket items. That has put the city in a better position to deal with the crisis, said Chief of Staff John Bennett.

Related: Castor gets unanimous approval for first $1.04 billion budget

City officials also briefed council members on One Tampa, the city’s relief effort, which has helped residents and businesses pay rent, utility and mortgage costs. Through last week, the city has paid 665 claims to the tune of $623,000, or $900 for the average claim, said Carole Post, the city’s administrator of economic development and opportunity.

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That’s 48 percent of the 1,390 qualified applicants. The city will continue processing those applications as quickly as possible, she said.

The small business relief component of the $8.5 million fund, which was bolstered by $1.3 million in donations, including from the region’s three professional sports teams, has been less successful so far. As a result, the process is being streamlined to get businesses in low-income areas help.

Related: Tampa to loosen rules on small business aid to cope with pandemic

Council member Orlando Gudes again objected to giving money only to businesses that were operating for a year before February 2020, saying the city was “holding our foot on their throat” of newer businesses that have also been hit hard by the virus.

Post said the city decided to focus its limited funds on businesses with a more established track record that were more likely to survive the economic downturn.

Most of the council members greeted the hour-long briefing with subdued realism. Luis Viera, a history buff, said going forward, the city’s budgets would be less like Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society budgets of the 1960s and more like those of 1920s Republican Calvin Coolidge, who was known for his dislike of federal spending.

Charlie Miranda sounded pessimistic that the fiscal outlook would get better anytime soon.

“There will have to be further adjustments made, and I’m afraid they will not be in our favor," he said.

City officials also announced that $39.3 million of the 20-year, $2.9 billion project to overhaul the city’s aging sewer, wastewater and water systems had been put on hold. Other aspects of the massive infrastructure project were proceeding as planned.

But the theme of the meeting was a lack of certainty about what lies ahead.

“We’re at the end of the beginning, not at the beginning of the end,” said Bennett.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misstated the amount of projects on hold for the city’s $2.9 billion infrastructure program. The amount on hold due to the pandemic is $39.3 million.

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