For all the gains Tampa has made during Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s eight years in office, there is still plenty of work to do on several major fronts. The two candidates seeking to replace him, Jane Castor and David Straz, have only weeks to sharpen their agendas before the April 23 election. Here are four key areas where voters need to learn more about the candidates’ priorities:
1. City Budget. Buckhorn made key investments in parks and stormwater protection, and he leaves his successor a stable budget, thanks in part to healthy cash reserves and a property tax increase in 2017. The incoming mayor, who takes office May 1, will have only weeks to shape the proposed 2020 budget. Castor, who as Tampa police chief presided over the city's largest department during the recession, opposes any across-the-board cuts, favoring to consolidate where possible. Straz has suggested cutting the budget by 10 percent while hiring more police officers. That seems implausible, given that public safety already consumers two-thirds of the city's discretionary budget. With the economy slowing, their approach to managing the budget should be a defining issue in the race.
2. Transportation. The transportation tax that Hillsborough County voters approved in November will provide Tampa an additional $30 million per year, enough to more quickly address the backlog of road paving and other routine maintenance. Castor has been more specific than Straz in how she would better connect neighborhoods and major employment centers, and work with HART - the county's mass transit provider, which stands to receive an additional $136 million annually - on a comprehensive approach toward modernizing the local transportation system. Castor also says it's a "necessity" to create a multimodal transportation hub downtown, which could serve as a gateway for regional rail service - east to Orlando and west to Tampa International Airport and Pinellas County. Straz supports an emerging plan for bus rapid transit between St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel. But he has not outlined a specific transportation plan for Tampa, and he is cautious about how any new light rail system would “fit within the budget.”
3. Housing. With rising rents and home prices pushing lower-income families from the urban core, the candidates have put affordable housing at the top of their agendas. Castor and Straz have both committed to create a task force to address the problem, though Castor has a firmer grasp of what public incentives it will take and of the role that nonprofits need to play in carrying out this public mission. Straz's suggestion that he would lean heavily on the private sector for solutions was rightly dismissed as "ridiculous" by City Council member Harry Cohen, who placed third in the mayoral primary. The next mayor needs to make better use of city lots, explore tiny homes and encourage the development of more mixed-income projects.
4. Neighborhoods. Buckhorn invested record sums in the neighborhoods, but the neighborhood needs are many. The transportation tax will help speed road resurfacing, but there are larger needs, from new sidewalks and drainage improvements to more vigilant code enforcement. The next mayor needs to work with the police and public works departments to make streets safer for pedestrians. The mayor also needs to work with city council on updated land regulations to attract small businesses and other appropriate-scale mixed uses to the neighborhoods.