The 2024 budget that Tampa Mayor Jane Castor proposed has something for everybody. That’s the problem. The administration wants higher taxes, more personnel and increased spending virtually across the board. The plan shows few priorities, little sense of timing and no outward appreciation for the long-term impact to taxpayers. The Tampa City Council should hit the brakes when it takes a key vote on the budget Tuesday.
In August, Castor proposed a $1.9 billion budget that included a hefty tax increase and tens of millions of dollars in additional spending. She would raise the property tax rate a full millage point, or 16%, to about $7.21 from $6.21 for every $1,000 in assessed value. The increase would add about $232 annually to an average home’s tax bill, with the extra $54 million in revenue going to beef up public safety, repair roads and sidewalks, improve parks and other projects.
The budget makes some key investments, but it largely amounts to an “all-of-the-above” spending plan that spreads the money rather than taking a serious look at Tampa’s pressing needs or spending practices. Hiring more police officers, for example, sounds fine. But Tampa’s crime rate is relatively low, and the size of the department’s existing force will exceed national standards for at least several more years.
Even without Castor’s proposed tax increase, Tampa will generate $35 million in additional revenue next year, thanks to rising property values that added 12% to the city’s taxable value. The vast majority of that money ($26 million) can be spent anywhere on anything, from tripling road paving to improving parks. Nearly $9 million more will be available for targeted spending downtown and in other areas. That’s a healthy starting point in improving public services.
Tampa has a spending problem, and the solution isn’t to raise taxes by the largest amount in decades. The city’s workforce under Castor has grown three times faster than Tampa’s population. Castor’s 2024 budget calls for 4,914 employees, 414 more than when she took office. Since Castor became mayor, spending for personnel has increased $138 million, to a proposed $471 million next year, a 41% hike since 2019. More hiring means bigger legacy costs over time as outlays compound for pay raises, cost-of-living adjustments and pension increases.
Such a large tax increase might be warranted if Tampa had a better record for managing money. But the city’s parks department, for example, comes nowhere close to the national average in recouping fees for dance, fitness and similar programs; charges for most recreation programs haven’t changed in 14 years. And how does the city justify green-lighting a municipal annex in East Tampa whose price tag ballooned nearly 11-fold, from $10 million to $108 million? How did a park remodel in East Tampa skyrocket to $18 million — and now to $41.3 million? For those doing the math, that additional $23 million equates to half of what Castor’s tax increase would raise for the city’s main operating fund next year.
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There’s never a good time to raise taxes, which is why the merits should clearly outweigh the sacrifice. Tampa residents continue to struggle with a lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing rents, high gas prices and soaring insurance premiums. Nearly 1 in 5 people here lives in poverty. Raising property taxes in Tampa to the highest rate in 41 years seems deaf to the economics of the moment. It could also dampen support for future countywide taxes that would have suburban residents and tourists contribute for their use of Tampa’s transportation system.
Meeting a city’s needs and wants is a balancing act that requires more than asking for more. Council members need to comb the budget for savings before considering higher taxes.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.