TAMPA — If there is one thing City Council members and Mayor Jane Castor agree on, it’s that Tampa is in an affordable housing crisis.
Rents are rising, property values soaring. Residents fear being displaced by gentrification — especially in East and West Tampa — a constant theme during public comment at council meetings.
How to help is where the tension arises as city leaders head into budget season.
Castor will present her 2021-22 budget to council members on Aug. 5. The details are still being worked out, but officials say no millage increase is in the cards. Nor are any notable cuts or big-ticket spending items, they say.
The mayor’s spokesperson Adam Smith said Friday that neither Chief Financial Officer Dennis Rogero nor any other city officials will comment publicly on budget details. They’ll start talking next week, he said.
That lack of information — while across the bay, St. Petersburg continues its tradition of holding public summer budget workshops — has led to conflicting accounts of how much money the city has and how it will be spent.
Council Chairman Orlando Gudes thinks there are recent savings in the Tampa Police Department budget that might yield up to $7 million that can be funneled to affordable housing needs, including beefing up the city’s housing outreach efforts.
Gudes frequently voices his displeasure at burdensome application paperwork and lack of staff communication with residents who have expressed interest in affordable housing programs. He did so again Thursday, during a Community Redevelopment Agency meeting.
But the police department has no such savings, Castor told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
“That was news to everyone,” Castor said when asked about Gudes’s earlier comments to the Times. “No. Not in that particular budget.”
For the current fiscal year, the police department is operating under a $184.2 million budget, including capital items. The overall city budget is about $1.25 billion. Public safety accounts for 65 percent of the city’s $457 million general fund, which pays for most day-to-day expenses.
Castor said affordable housing will be an important part of her plan.
“That’s one of my pillars: affordable housing,” she said. “So we’re going to do everything we can to address those needs in the 2022 budget.”
Gudes and other council members have also sided with a vocal fire union in pushing for more fire stations to serve a quickly growing city, especially in the Channel District and North Tampa.
Money for those stations won’t be in her budget, Castor said. Instead, the city will embark on a master plan to assess Tampa Fire Rescue’s needs. That’s an idea previously advanced by council member Luis Viera.
“In the past, the answer has always been built another station, right? And so we’re looking at the actual need,” Castor said. “More people does not necessarily translate into another firehouse.
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“Like, for example, down on Water Street, you have a lot of people moving into there, right. You have a lot of young people. And so the majority of the calls for service for Tampa Fire Rescue are medical. There’s not a lot of medical calls coming out Channelside. That may be a great place. That may be the perfect place for (a station.) But we need that overarching long term study to tell us that.”
Incoming fire union president Andrew Carter said he was “frustrated” by the mayor’s position, but remained “optimistic” about what might be voted on in September.
The union has already conducted a study showing the need, he said.
“If we don’t grow at the same rate as the population, we’re not standing still we’re moving backwards,” Carter said.
While fire stations and affordable housing might be the first hurdles to approving a budget, council members are also concerned by the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
The streets in his West Tampa district are in terrible shape with football-sized chunks of asphalt and gaping potholes, said Guido Maniscalco at the Thursday evening council meeting.
He received council support to request Castor’s staff to report back with a plan to fix streets at a Sept. 2 council meeting. Maniscalco noted that would be “good timing” coinciding with the budget hearings.
South Tampa activists have increasingly called for sidewalk construction and repair along busy streets, a consistent complaint since former Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration.
And environmentalists and property owners are increasingly worried about rising sea levels and associated flooding. Little wonder then that a potential branding for the mayor’s budget is being considered: “Resilient Tampa.”
In September, council members will hold two public hearings, which usually contain some last-minute haggling and surprises.
Florida mandates that the city approve its budget by Sept. 30. The new fiscal year starts the next day.