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  1. Opinion

Bob Buckhorn: Expanding homestead exemption will endanger Tampa's progress

In the years leading up to my taking office, Tampa families experienced some of the hardest times in recent history. Homes were lost, jobs were cut, and optimism for the future waned.

When I walked the streets of this city, knocking on thousands of doors, meeting many of you on the steps of your home, I heard your stories — stories of strong families looking for their way back.

Our city has had a similar story. We were knocked on our backs by the Great Recession. We laid off over 700 employees, cut services, and halted the progress on important projects we could no longer afford. We are barely on our feet from an economic catastrophe and yet, the politicians in Tallahassee have decided to deliver us an added blow by proposing an additional homestead exemption — in excess of a $5 million impact to our bottom line.

In all the progress we have made, there is still work to be done. Property taxes, our primary source of revenue, have yet to reach pre-recession levels. In fact, the amount we generate in property tax does not even cover the cost of our police and fire departments. We are operating with more than $13 million less in property tax revenue this year than we were in 2007.

Yet in spite of the severity of this recession, we have received 12 bond rating increases from the Wall Street rating agencies, a reflection of the fiscally responsible and prudent way in which we manage your money.

During the discussions in Tallahassee, we heard our legislators call local governments "wasteful, lazy and unaccountable" as they argued for changes to the tax base that they themselves will have no accountability in implementing when the time comes to make tough choices — tough choices we, our families and our neighbors, will need to live with.

It is irresponsible and poor governance to ask you to decide on sweeping changes to the tax statute without also telling you what the consequences will be for services in your backyard.

Residents of Tampa will not likely call their state legislators when their neighborhoods need new fire stations, their streets need repaving, or their children need access to affordable summer camps. That is because unlike the Tallahassee lawmakers sitting up high in their Capitol, your local governments — the cities and counties — are here on the ground with you.

It is your local governments that pick up your trash, protect our neighborhoods, and fill the potholes after a storm. We provide the services you depend on. They aren't glamorous or newsworthy but they are essential to the daily lives of families in every corner of our city.

That is our mission, to provide you the services that you have come to expect, and we do it exceedingly better today with fewer people, less money, and less waste than ever before.

These cuts in services will affect every person living in Tampa; however, the tax shift of an additional homestead exemption will not benefit the majority of us. If your home is $100,000 or less in value, you will not benefit. If you rent your home or apartment, you will not benefit. If you own commercial real estate, you will not benefit. Yet, you will be subject to cuts in critical services without a dime back in your pocket to show for it.

For local government to absorb these cuts there are two choices, cut services or raise the millage rate.

It is easy from Tallahassee to wag its finger at local governments and continue to assault our self-governance — a trend of blatant political power grabs thinly veiled by the belief that they know better our needs than we do and that they can better solve our challenges than we can.

If that is not enough, imagine the hypocrisy of a Legislature that falls over itself to give the voters the opportunity to vote to reduce their taxes but refuses to give those very same voters the opportunity to choose for themselves whether to enhance their quality of life by investing in a better transportation system.

Since the Great Recession, the story of our city has also paralleled the story of so many Tampa families. We worked hard, we tightened our budgets, we did more with less and we clawed our way back. Together as a community, we are finally feeling the results of our fearlessness.

Here in Tampa, we are the blueprint for cities around the world on how innovation leads to progress. We stand on the world's stage as a global destination for business, education, and quality of life. We cannot allow Tallahassee lawmakers to drive us backward.

Bob Buckhorn is the mayor of Tampa.