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Is a budget fight brewing in Tampa?

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, pictured with city water director Chuck Weber, is backing a plan to raise water and sewer rates for the next several years to repair aging pipes and outdated plants. {Charlie Frago | Times]
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, pictured with city water director Chuck Weber, is backing a plan to raise water and sewer rates for the next several years to repair aging pipes and outdated plants. {Charlie Frago | Times]
Published Jul. 19, 2019

TAMPA — There won't be a proposed property tax hike to wrangle over until the early morning hours like council members did a few year ago. And contract negotiations with the city's three unions haven't even begun.

But Mayor Jane Castor doesn't have a free glide path for her first city budget. On Aug. 1, when she presents her spending plan in council chambers (her first visit there as mayor), Castor will likely have to show some flexibility to get the four votes she needs for a budget expected to top $1 billion.

Council member Bill Carlson, who represents South Tampa, has said he won't vote for the budget unless the city pumps the brakes on its wastewater reuse project, dubbed the Tampa Augmentation Project. That project would dramatically increase Tampa's water supply by converting sewage into drinking water, but Carlson and other critics worry it could harm the environment and damage Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility that coordinates the area's water supply.

"If it looks like they're railroading TAP (the reuse project), then I'll vote against it," Carlson said.

Soon after, Castor pulled a $661,105 public outreach request related to the project. Her chief of staff told Carlson the city would entertain other options, like buying more water from Tampa Bay Water.

Another key vote is Guido Maniscalco. The second-term council member has pushed for the city to reopen city pools in West Tampa and Seminole Heights. Castor hasn't made any promises, but Maniscalco says he wants to see some money put toward the cause in this budget.

"It doesn't have to be a lot. But something to show she is committed," he said. "I want to be reasonable. She's just started."

Other members who have occasionally challenged Castor during her first few months have signaled their priorities. John Dingfelder has said he wants the city to build (or pay for) up to 1,000 new affordable housing units a year. Orlando Gudes has pushed for more minority access to city contracts.

Castor has announced initiatives to address both problems, but neither Dingfelder nor Gudes are certain votes.

Council chairman Luis Viera, who has at times showed frustration with Dingfelder's activist stances and frequent questioning of city staff, said he hopes his colleagues will address the merits of Castor's budget without playing politics.

"We should be reasonable. We should make diligent inquiries. And we should be fair," Viera said.

Viera and Charlie Miranda, a ferocious supporter of the city's wastewater reuse program, are likely in Castor's camp. Joe Citro has also been supportive. Citro didn't respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, municipal coffers have been buoyed by rising property values. But budget negotiations have typically remained tense. Two years ago, council members voted and argued well into the night over then-mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed property tax increase. They eventually settled on less than half of his request. And resentments and recriminations about those votes continue to this day.

Last year, union demands for protections against higher health insurance deductibles and premiums eventually triumphed over Buckhorn's plans to make city employees bear more of a fiscal burden for their health. That fight also lasted over two meetings and nearly 12 hours.

Castor has said the estimated $3.7 million budget surplus isn't going to be a goodie bag for special projects. She's spoken about salting away some of it for reserves. And she has committed to spending about $350,000 to put more body cameras on police officers. Beyond that, she has kept her thoughts to herself and her public statements vague.

The city must approved a balanced budget by Oct. 1.

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

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