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Bob Buckhorn says city will be in the black for its next budget

Mayor Bob Buckhorn is in high spirits with an early budget forecast that shows a surplus for the first time in his eight years in office.  [Photo credit: Octavio Jones]
Mayor Bob Buckhorn is in high spirits with an early budget forecast that shows a surplus for the first time in his eight years in office. [Photo credit: Octavio Jones]
Published Apr. 11, 2019

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn waggled the paper with a gleeful look on his face, pointing to a list of signatures his budget team etched in black Sharpie ink at the bottom of the page.

"For the first time in eight years, this is not red," Buckhorn said in a recent interview surrounded by packing boxes and stacks of nick-knacks in an office he'll relinquish to a new mayor on May 1. "And they all signed it because they knew what a big deal this was."

The document he held was the mayoral budget forecast, which last year at this time showed an estimated $13 million deficit — a lot of ground that had to be made up before the council approved the city's approximately $1 billion budget.

This year, the bottom line showed a $1.7 million projected surplus courtesy of a robust housing market, long-awaited reimbursements from Hurricane Irma recovery efforts and the failure of Amendment 1 last November, which would have increased property tax exemptions, costing the city between $5 and $6 million.

The surplus, though small, is the result of eight years of often painful budget trims, Buckhorn said.

"We're good for the next budget coming up," he said, referring to fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1. "I won't have to give all the departments haircuts."

The infamous haircuts were a yearly ritual for department heads during Buckhorn's two terms. Each spring, they were expected to find between 3 and 5 percent to cut as the city struggled to climb out of the fiscal hole it fell into during the Great Recession, which lingered on in reduced property tax revenue long after Buckhorn entered office in 2011.

Jane Castor, who served as police chief between 2009 and 2015, has spoken frequently during her mayoral campaign about having to look for possible cuts in every corner of her department each year. As chief, she supervised the city department with the biggest slice of the budget pie.

The next mayor might have an even easier time if the City Council approves a proposed land sale in rural Hillsborough County that could net up to $7.5 million. The land is 450 acres near McIntosh Road that the city acquired in the 1950s for a water source that never panned out. Council members will consider that sale at the April 18 meeting.

"Jane will start her administration in the black, as the economists say," said Buckhorn, who has endorsed his former police chief, in a rhetorical jumping-of- the-gun before the April 23 mayoral runoff election.

Her opponent, David Straz, has pledged to cut "fluff and waste" from the budget after conducting a citywide audit, though he recently backed away from a vow to slash it by 10 percent.

The city is projecting that 22 percent of its budget will be held in reserves, exceeding the city's policy of a fund balance equaling at least 20 percent of operating expenditures.

"It's been a long, hard struggle," Buckhorn said.

The city still faces some fiscal hurdles. The next three years will require $14 million in payments to pay off a 1990s debt to develop Centro Ybor and police headquarters, among other projects, But that's figured into the estimates.

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Council member Luis Viera said a surplus is welcome news, but said it shouldn't be a green light for a spending spree.

"This year's surplus can easily be tomorrow's deficit," he said.

Another recession could crater the city's emerging financial health.

"We know these things don't last forever," he said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.