Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s first budget wins unanimous approval

The mayor made some concessions in her $1.04 billion spending plan, especially to council member Orlando Gudes’ demands for East Tampa.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears at a September forum on the Equal Rights Amendment at the Centre Club of Tampa. Her first budget was approved 7-0 by City Council.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears at a September forum on the Equal Rights Amendment at the Centre Club of Tampa. Her first budget was approved 7-0 by City Council. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Octavio Jones ]
Published Sept. 18, 2019|Updated Sept. 18, 2019


TAMPA — It wasn’t short, but it ended sweetly Tuesday night for Mayor Jane Castor after her $1.04-billion inaugural budget won the votes of all seven City Council members.

Those members didn’t leave empty handed, however, especially Orlando Gudes, who represents the city’s only majority black council district. Two weeks ago, at an initial budget hearing, Gudes nabbed nearly $1.6 million for a cultural center and increased ambulance service for some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in East Tampa.

RELATED STORY: Gudes says East Tampa is hungry for more city services

During Tuesday’s three-hour meeting, Gudes tried to get round-the-clock staffing for the ambulance at Tampa Fire Rescue Station 16, 5126 E 10th Ave. But his bid failed when other council members said they were worried about raiding the city’s reserve fund to pay the extra $700,000 needed to keep the ambulance going 24-7. Castor’s chief of staff John Bennett promised to work toward that goal in the coming months.

Castor praised the vote, saying it was “a big step forward for our city."

“This budget reflects the optimism I have for Tampa’s future and for the futures of generations of Tampanians to come,” she said in a statement released moments after the vote.

Her victory didn’t come without a fight, led by Gudes and East Tampa residents who said they were tired of paying taxes while failing to receive the quality and level of services that they say is enjoyed by more prosperous parts of the city.

College Hill Neighborhood Association president Cynthia Few said her neighborhood has declined over the decades she’s lived there.

“We pay full-time taxes,” she said. "We need full-time services in our community.”

Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes during a June meeting.
Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes during a June meeting. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

That was a reference to a dispute over whether the Station 16 ambulance would be staffed by paramedics who volunteered for overtime or full-time, permanent staff.

Council member Bill Carlson, who has urged the city to bolster its reserves in case of a recession and to preserve its favorable bond rating, said he wanted to see the full-time ambulance service. But he did not want it to come at the expense of raiding the reserves. Since it was the council’s second hearing, the millage rate couldn’t be increased.

It will stay the same as last year at 6.2076 mills. (A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value.) Castor didn’t request a property tax increase.

“Let’s not erode our general fund reserve because we desperately need that," Carlson said.

Council member Charlie Miranda urged firefighter union officials and Castor to reach a consensus over the full-time service, which would cost $1.1 million annually. Union officials had argued that voluntary overtime service during peak hours, something already occurring in North Tampa, was burning out rescue personnel and was an inefficient use of fire resources.

"I’m from the old school. A handshake to me is as good as something on paper,” Miranda said, prompting chief of staff John Bennett and Tampa Firefighters Local 754 president Joe Greco to shake hands and promise to work on an agreement.

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About $700,000 in annual costs separate the voluntary overtime proposal and full-time staffing, said interim chief financial officer Dennis Rogero.

RELATED STORY: Orlando Gudes gets an ambulance for East Tampa

Bennett, the mayor’s chief budget negotiator, was praised by council members for his willingness to listen and find solutions. Castor was also praised for setting a collaborative tone.

On Wednesday, at a news conference to mark the passing of her budget, Castor returned the favor, thanking council members for working with her. And she acknowledged that fiscal sausage-making is never easy.

“Putting together a budget like this is not for the faint of heart, I can assure you,” she said, before joking that her administration and council members should take a “victory lap” around the downtown fire station and headquarters where the news conference was held.

Not everyone was pleased, however. The Tampa Bay Community Network, a nonprofit providing community access television programming and training, failed in a last-ditch effort to restore city funding cut in 2017.

And Gudes said he would vote for the budget, but vowed to “raise hell” if his constituents were ignored in the future. He then employed a football analogy:

“I’m going to call it a tie with the commitment that if we don’t do what we say we’re going to do I’m going to ask for a rematch,” Gudes said.

Council chair Luis Viera acknowledged the large role played by East Tampa in this year’s budget negotiations. The area had been a talking point for nearly all of the mayoral and city council candidates in the city election this spring.

East Tampa has faced a century of discrimination. The council was taking its first steps to remedy that legacy, Viera said.

Here are some other budget highlights:

  • Equipping 550 more police officers with body cameras, at a cost of $1.1. million.
  • Setting aside $1.6 million in state and federal grant funding to help 120 moderate to low-income families buy homes. Castor also wants to use grant money to build 75 new affordable homes in East Tampa and plans to “increase rental opportunities” with 200 new affordable units.
  • Providing $11.8 million to handle transit infrastructure issues, with about $10.3 million for street resurfacing, traffic calming and other roadway improvements.
  • Hiring a sustainability and resilience officer to address the effects of climate change and spending $13.8 million on flood control projects.

The budget will take effect on Oct. 1.

Times staff writer Sam Ogozalek contributed to this report.