The email titled “The Mayor’s Concerning New Tax” landed in inboxes across Tampa hours after Mayor Jane Castor on Thursday unveiled her proposed 2024 budget, which includes a double-digit property tax rate hike.
Those who scrolled to the bottom saw a mailing address listed: a waterfront home in South Tampa. Not just any home, but the one belonging to Stephen Rifkin, husband of former state legislator Janet Cruz — mother of Mayor Castor’s longtime partner, lobbyist Ana Cruz.
The email, signed off from “TheTampaTruth,” comes from someone who purports to be “a lifelong Tampa resident, deeply concerned” about Castor’s tax increase.
“Although I am quite capable of criticizing the mayor’s budget if necessary, I have never seen the budget nor have I seen the email,” Cruz told the Tampa Bay Times when reached by phone Friday morning.
“This is just more of their petulant teenage behavior,” she said, declining to expand on who she meant by “their.”
Earlier this year, Cruz unsuccessful ran for City Council, challenging sitting council member Lynn Hurtak, who had pushed back against Castor on issues including a wastewater reuse project. The race for the citywide District 3 seat was seen as a proxy battle over providing a check on the mayor’s office.
Castor broke with city political tradition of staying out of council races and endorsed Cruz.
“We’re always happy to talk with and answer questions from anyone who doesn’t hide behind anonymity,” city Communications Director Adam Smith said Friday in a statement to the Times. “Absolutely no one in this administration or on the City Council takes lightly the financial strains on residents as late or the impact of a rate increase.”
Tampa residents have twice in the last five years voted in favor of raising their taxes to fund transportation offerings in ultimately rejected county ballot measures, Smith said, adding that the “status quo is simply not sustainable if Tampa wants to continue to thrive and keep up with growth.”
Cruz and Rifkin, a physician, married two decades ago and have previously held fundraising events at the four-bedroom house in Tampa’s well-heeled Sunset Park neighborhood.
Rifkin bought the property, which has a pool and sweeping views of Old Tampa Bay, in 1989 and claims a homestead exemption, declaring it his primary residence, according to the county property appraisers office. Cruz also owns a South Tampa house, in Virginia Park, but does not claim a homestead exemption, according to property records which list her mailing address as her husband’s waterfront home.
The anonymous email warns Castor’s property tax increase may stifle small business growth and exacerbate the financial struggles of homeowners and renters.
“This agenda is a long time coming, as Buckhorn also increased this rate under his tenure,” the email continues, referencing Bob Buckhorn, Castor’s predecessor who proposed an increase of the millage in 2017. The City Council approved his request for a tax hike, though slashed the rate increase in half.
Before that, the last time Tampa raised its property tax rate was 1989.
Facing an influx of new residents and an ever-growing backlog of maintenance projects, Castor has called a rate increase a “critical investment” necessary to tackle the city’s pressing concerns, including housing, transportation, public safety and parks. The proposal would add about $230 to the tax bill of a homeowner with a home with an average assessed value, the Times previously reported.
“I know that this is a bold move. But it is necessary,” Castor recently told the Times. “Burying our head in the sand isn’t going to improve any of these issues.”
The anonymous email criticizes the Castor administration’s budget for being “overly long to the point of obfuscating the details.” The email continues: “More money going to city hall means they can usher more money and expensive contracts to their friends, family, and lobbyist buddies.”
Cruz’s eldest child, Ana, calls herself “Tampa’s First Lady” and manages the Tampa Bay practice of lobbying firm Ballard Partners.