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With 2015 shortfall looming, Tampa council talks revenue

Published Mar. 14, 2014

TAMPA — The City Council delved into its budget priorities Thursday, but the talk wasn't all about spending.

While a couple of rec centers were mentioned as needing upgrades, the council spent more time on revenue and how to grow it.

What about strengthening code enforcement and creating new methods to collect code enforcement fines? The additional revenue could help defray the costs of inspectors, council members said, and better-kept, more valuable properties would fuel growth in property tax revenue.

Yvonne Yolie Capin said the city should take advantage of the federal government's "EB-5" immigration program. It lets foreigners earn temporary visas — and potentially green cards — by investing $500,000 to $1 million in job-creating projects. And she said the city should put more effort into applying for grants.

"We're leaving money on the table," Capin said.

Council members also mused about costs like fuel, and whether the city could learn from the practice of UPS and Federal Express of continuously remapping service routes that save gasoline by, for example, avoiding left turns.

The council called the special meeting to discuss ways to present its budget priorities to Mayor Bob Buckhorn's staff earlier in the budget process. But after learning that Buckhorn expects to face a revenue shortfall of $10 million to $15 million for next year's budget, members put aside the idea that the city will have extra money to play with in 2015.

"Another year of austerity budgeting," council member Harry Cohen said.

Before the meeting, Buckhorn said council members can influence the budget process, and his administration takes their suggestions for projects in their districts seriously. But in a budget as complex as Tampa's, he said changing one thing can create unintended consequences.

"You can't just take a million bucks from something and put it over here and not have impacts on some other neighborhood," Buckhorn said.

With that in mind, a need often mentioned by council members Thursday was road resurfacing and filling potholes. It is, several said, a constant complaint from constituents.

"The more that we do, the more it exposes how much there is to be done," Cohen said.

Another council priority: safeguarding the city's cash reserves. City Hall has withdrawn from $7.2 million to $7.5 million in each of the last three years to balance the budget. Buckhorn says the $95 million now in reserves are significantly more than what Wall Street lenders expect from a city with a healthy balance sheet. Still, there seems to be little appetite for a fourth trip.

"The city can't afford to go back into reserves," council member Frank Reddick said. "You just can't keep doing that."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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