TAMPA — A week after axing any chance of a tax rate hike, Tampa City Council members gathered Wednesday to brainstorm ways they could make good on promises that investments in community priorities were possible without saddling property owners with larger tax bills.
At a workshop that stretched into the night, council members scrubbed Mayor Jane Castor’s proposed budget for savings, occasionally butting heads about how much to trim to free up money for widely agreed-upon needs. Their priorities included improving access to affordable housing and updating equipment for the fire department.
Among the items on the chopping block:
- Vacant positions, including a new adviser the mayor had wanted in her office who would be paid almost $165,000
- Funding for public events for one year such as Boom By the Bay, Tampa’s Independence Day celebration, or the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, River O’Green
- Funding that the city gives to organizations like Feeding Tampa Bay or Catholic Charities
- Proposed merit raises to nonunion city employees.
The seven-member board also pondered the possibility of dipping into the city’s reserves.
“We have a very healthy reserve balance thanks to you and your team because you’ve been very good at saving money for that rainy day,” chairperson Guido Maniscalco said at the meeting, motioning to the city’s chief financial officer. “I think the rainy day is here.”
Last Tuesday, council members voted against approving Mayor Jane Castor’s budget proposal, which included a double-digit property tax rate hike that would have added about $232 to an average home’s annual tax bill.
The 16% tax rate increase would have boosted the city’s $670 million general revenue fund, its main operating account, by about $45 million, which Castor said was necessary for “critical investments” like public safety, street and sidewalk repair, public parks and affordable housing.
Council members who shot down the proposal said they could find the money for such investments without raising taxes. The number crunching proved difficult Wednesday night as members offered potential cuts and earmarked priorities to send to the administration for further discussion.
“If this wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny,” said council member Alan Clendenin, who voted against the mayor’s full mill increase but did not vote in favor of keeping the tax rate the same.
He said council was handing city staff “an impossible task” with a “gigantic wish list and a limited number of dollars available.”
In an effort to balance the budget, planned pay raises for nearly 1,000 nonunion employees drew scrutiny.
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“We really do have to look very carefully this year at how we’re going to handle our personnel,” said council member Lynn Hurtak, who voted in favor of keeping property tax rates the same.
“For lack of a better word, it sucks,” she said. “I want to hire a ton of new people and have the money to do everything, but we just don’t have the ability for that right now.”
She also suggested the city could cease certain public events for a year: “Maybe just for one year we say, ‘Hey, this is the kinds of stuff we are cutting and I know they are things that everybody enjoys, but everybody also then has to participate in some of the rollbacks.’”
“We have a lot of different competing interests, all of which are very critical, that are going to compete for the funds,” said council member Luis Viera. He’d been a vocal critic of the mayor’s rate hike and last week attempted to pass a smaller increase dedicated to public safety.
Council members seemed united Wednesday that they did not want Tampa Police Department or Tampa Fire Rescue to shoulder cuts. Among the list of priorities they sent to the administration was funding for renovations at decades-old fire stations the union says are mold-infested and money for new stations in areas where response times are lagging.
Housing also loomed large in the priority list, with members hoping to maintain the $5.2 million investment the mayor proposed for expanding owner-occupied rehabilitation programs and purchasing hotels and motels to turn into transitional housing.
The council will meet on Tuesday to finalize the budget at Old City Hall.