Jane Castor's sensible first budget | Editorial

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has unveiled her first budget. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times (2019 file)]
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has unveiled her first budget. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2019 file)]
Published Aug. 1, 2019

In presenting a no-frills budget for 2020, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is pushing a spending plan that invests in the basics and offers equity across the city's diverse neighborhoods. It is a sensible start, both fiscally and politically, for the retired Tampa police chief who brings local roots and a no-nonsense approach to the mayor's office. Castor also included several small but symbolic initiatives that bode well for the longer term.

Budgets reflect a mayor's priorities and Castor's first one, presented Thursday on the anniversary of her third month in office, sets the tone and course for an administration and its early relationship with the City Council. In that sense, the spending plan Castor offered delivered on her campaign promise to focus on essentials, to build on the progress of her predecessor, Bob Buckhorn, and to bring a wide range of voices to the table.

Property taxes would remain the same, and expenditures overall would increase only slightly, to $1.04 billion, a one percent increase over the current year. Spending for general government services would rise nearly $22 million, mostly for increases in employee health costs and the hiring of 26 new employees in the parks, water and other departments with high demand in a growing city. Still, Tampa's workforce of 4,500 represents a lean operation compared to similar-sized Florida cities. The property tax increase Buckhorn successfully pushed for 2018 helped stabilize the budget picture. But Castor is right to warn that Tampa "is not out of the woods yet" from the Great Recession. Her budget ably avoids reserves, keeping Tampa's rainy-day fund at 23 percent of the budget, well above what's needed to protect the city's credit rating.

The budget, though, does include some key investments. It commits $96 million to a range of deferred maintenance projects, from improving flood control and replacing water and sewer pipes to designing safer and more efficient streets. There is something for every neighborhood, from drainage projects in South Tampa to park upgrades in the central city and community center improvements in New Tampa. Castor also wants to outfit more police officers with body cameras, expanding the 60 currently in use to 550, enough to equip corporals and the uniformed patrol force. She would continue funding affordable housing efforts that could help scores of needy families.

Castor also makes a statement with her plan to hire a resiliency officer to guide the city's approach in addressing the impacts of climate change. Tampa should join St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and other area agencies by having a point person manage a local strategy for dealing with rising seas and other threats to lives, property and public infrastructure. She also wants to raise the profile and effectiveness of the city's minority business development program, which could expand opportunity and incomes in struggling neighborhoods and strengthen race relations.

This budget won't change Tampa's foundation or fabric overnight. But it shows the new mayor has the right priorities and the political instincts to sell them.