TAMPA — When Mayor Bob Buckhorn took office, putting together a city budget had real drama to it.
His first year in office, he had to close a revenue shortfall of more than $34 million. His second year, it was nearly $28 million.
This year, not so much.
Thanks to a fourth straight year of rising property values, Buckhorn on Thursday proposed a $905.9 million city budget for 2017 that does not dip into city reserves.
"The city of Tampa is structurally and fiscally sound," Buckhorn said in his annual budget message to the City Council, which will hold two public hearings on the spending plan in September.
But the budget would raise property tax bills. That's because taxable property values are expected to rise in the coming year. So keeping the same tax rate — $5.73 in city taxes for every $1,000 of assessed taxable property value — would generate more in property tax revenues.
Consequently, Florida's truth-in-millage law will require the city to advertise a 5 percent property tax increase.
The average Tampa house is assessed at $154,699 for tax purposes. If the owner has a homestead exemption, the city property tax bill would be about $600 next year. Add in property taxes levied by the School Board, Hillsborough County, the library system, the Children's Board and other taxing authorities, and that tax bill would be almost $2,387.
Many homeowners are protected from big increases in their assessments by the Save Our Homes constitutional amendment.
But the cap doesn't apply to new construction, rental properties, hotels and commercial property.
Still, even with the growth in real estate values, Tampa's property tax revenues are projected to remain nearly $10 million below what they were during the prerecession building boom.
"We are not out of the woods yet," Buckhorn told the council. "The resources that we have are not even close to what we had in 2007."
And as usual, every cent in property tax revenues — more than $153 million in all — does not come close to covering the $240 million cost of running just the police and fire rescue departments.
The proposed budget is about $56 million more than this year's $850 million budget. Driving that increase are higher pension and health care costs and 27 new positions, bringing the total number of city employees to 4,397.
The new positions will go to construction services, where the permitting staff faces a rising tide of new building projects, to parks and recreation to staff the historic Roy Jenkins and Cuscaden Park pools six days a week, and to beef up the city's fleet maintenance garage, where Buckhorn said mechanics need help to keep city vehicles on the road.
Health care and pension costs, Buckhorn said, could bring some of the drama back to the budgeting process in future years.
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"Moving forward, we will be challenged," he said. "We're going to have to have some discussion over the next year about our health care costs."
Meanwhile, city reserves would remain at $88 million, or 23 percent of general spending. That's above the 20 percent of reserves that has helped the city win five credit rating increases — upgrades that lower the city's borrowing costs — in the last two years.
Along with the city's most high profile construction project, the $35.5 million redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, Buckhorn's budget includes:
• $4.7 million to build Fire Station No. 23 at 20770 Trout Creek Drive in New Tampa.
• $5.4 million for road resurfacing.
• $4.5 million to rehabilitate the Brorein Street Bridge.
• $130,000 for a playground shade structure at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
It also includes an assumption that the council will vote in coming weeks to approve a new stormwater fee to pay for large-scale projects designed to improve drainage and prevent flooding.
But Buckhorn said the $251 million program won't happen without the new fee, which would start at $45 annually for the owner of a medium-sized home and ramp up to $89 per year.
"There's no other way around this," he said. "Absent that stormwater assessment, we have no way to do anything other than Band-Aid major improvements."
The City Council will hold public hearings on the budget and proposed property tax rate at 5 p.m. on Sept. 7 and 21 in council chambers on the third floor of Old City Hall. The city's 2017 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com. Follow @Danielson_Times