TAMPA — The Tampa City Council voted to slam the brakes on Mayor Jane Castor’s proposed budget Tuesday night, axing the double-digit property tax rate increase she said was a “critical investment” to tackle an ever-growing backlog of maintenance projects and meet the needs of a growing city.
In 4-3 vote, council members decided to maintain current property tax rates at a meeting that included four hours of public comment, including a cautioning against the hike from former Tampa Mayor Sandra Freedman and one man holding up a pair of underpants during a speech about fiscal restraint.
The majority’s reluctance to raise taxes mounted over the last month as members of the council reviewed Castor’s $1.9 billion budget proposal amid the pinch of inflation, car insurance increases, a statewide property insurance crisis and growing utility bills.
One by one, residents — young and old, those in favor of the tax hike and those against — stood at the lectern, sharing their concerns about the city’s growing unaffordability. City Council members said they could find the money without raising taxes.
Within the first few minutes, council chairperson Guido Maniscalco said he was prepared to make a motion to reject any increase, a move that received applause from the crowd but was later criticized for showing a disregard for the public comment to come. Council member Alan Clendenin, who had praised the tax increase as “a bold step forward,” said he recognized it seemed “dead on arrival.”
Castor’s proposal would have increased the property tax rate — which the city has done only once since 1989 — by 16%. This would add about $232 annually to an average home’s tax bill, generating about $54 million, she said, to be funneled into public safety, street and sidewalk repair, public parks and affordable housing.
“I know that this is a bold move. But it is necessary,” the mayor told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this summer. “Burying our head in the sand isn’t going to improve any of these issues.”
But some City Council members criticized her administration for creating a false dichotomy.
“We can find the money for those things elsewhere in the budget,” Council member Bill Carlson, whose South Tampa district is home to the highest average property values, said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Without Castor’s proposed tax increase, Tampa will generate additional revenue next year thanks to rising property values that added 12% to the city’s taxable value. Carlson said keeping the tax rate the same as property values rise was “a compromise,” adding that any other increase would “destroy our economy.”
In Tampa, the current property tax rate (known as the millage) is about $6.21 for every $1,000 of assessed value. Castor proposed an increase to about $7.21, higher than both Orlando and St. Petersburg.
Council member Lynn Hurtak, who previously praised the mayor’s proposal and “vision for the city,” said she’d identified a transparency problem and that fulfilling policy priorities was possible without a tax increase.
“There is plenty of room to cut in this budget,” she said, pointing to line items including administrative positions she says the city cannot afford.
Council member Gwen Henderson — whose district includes East Tampa, Ybor City, downtown and part of West Tampa — criticized her colleagues for kicking the proverbial can down the road and dismissing a budget that would funnel funds into some of the city’s most pressing areas of concern.
“Those who need it the most, that is who we will be helping with the millage increase,” Henderson said. She, along with council members Clendenin and Luis Viera, ultimately did not support the motion to axe the tax rate increase entirely.
Nathan Hagen, the founder of YIMBY Tampa, reminded City Council that city residents have twice voted in favor of raising their taxes to fund transportation offerings in ultimately rejected county ballot measures, urging them to support a tax rate increase to better fund transportation offerings in the city.
“There is a need to raise revenue to meet the needs of our community,” he said. “We’re billions of dollars behind.”
Castor, who won reelection earlier this year and was not at Tuesday’s meeting, has said the city can continue to provide the current level of service without a tax rate increase, but that it is necessary for addressing “long-deferred needs and demands from our growing population will require additional revenue.”
Craig Newman, speaking on behalf of the citizens review board, which last month recommended that the City Council reject any tax increase, said: “There is never a good time to raise taxes,” but that this felt particularly poorly timed, given the Tampa Bay region’s inflation level, double the national rate.
“Please remember us when you make your decision,” said Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association president Fran Tate, urging elected officials to consider how the tax increase would impact seniors on a fixed income.
The City Council last month voted to ask the administration to provide a version of the budget without a tax increase for comparison.
Chief Financial Officer Dennis Rogero told the council that doing so would require the mayor to “unilaterally, and without any transparency, reduce expenditures” in the proposed budget, which would be “inconsistent with the collaborative process by which budgets have historically been developed and revised,” according to a memo reviewed by the Times.
On Tuesday night, resident after resident spoke about the city’s potholed streets, dismal transportation offerings and the lack of affordable housing options in Florida’s third-largest city.
Council member Luis Viera criticized Castor’s administration for “poisoning the well” by asking for too much, “saying yes to everything and no to nothing.” He noted that his office had received hundreds of emails against the increase.
“Well, there’s one,” he recalls telling his aide recently when he saw an email in his inbox urging him to support it.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Viera proposed slashing the mayor’s proposed tax hike by 70%, but not entirely, in the hopes of setting up a dedicated funding stream for public safety, particularly additional fire stations.
Clendenin called the mayor’s proposal “very reflective” of community wishes he heard on the campaign trail. “These are needs, not wants,” he said Tuesday. “No one is coming to save us.”
Recognizing that a final vote was near, Clendenin urged his colleagues not to tie their hands by denying the possibility of any rate increase before city staff had an opportunity to respond to questions at a subsequent meeting.
“We don’t have all the facts,” he said. “Provide some flexibility.”
But after 11 p.m., more than six hours into the meeting, council members Carlson, Hurtak, Miranda and Maniscalco decided Tampa property tax rates would not increase next year. From the back of the meeting room, a sigh from some city staff could be heard.