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National Politics

Buckhorn's first 100 days: Budgets and boosterism

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:20 PM

TAMPA He rolls into City Hall by 7 a.m., as the sun is just beginning to crawl over the downtown rooftops, and settles into a leather chair behind his large wooden desk.

Not long after, the meetings begin. Some days the discussion is about policy. Other days, it's about economic development plans. Most days, it's about the city's troubled financial outlook.

Since Bob Buckhorn took office as Tampa's mayor 100 days ago, his days have been long and consumed by marathon summits with staff, city business and civic leaders.

"The majority of my time has been spent trying to get my head about the city's finances," he said during a recent interview with The Tampa Tribune. "But I'm pushing hard, and I'm pushing staff hard, and we're on our way to getting our arms around this budget."

Tampa faces a projected $28 million deficit next fiscal year – a void created by declining property taxes – and by the end of the month, Buckhorn must present a proposed budget to the city council that offsets the losses without affecting vital services his city provides.

That's a tall order for a man who has never run a major business, let alone a big city.

"There's no users' manual for being mayor, there's no training," said Buckhorn, who has served on the city council and an executive aide to former mayor Sandy Freedman. "I'm probably as well equipped as anyone, having been around City Hall for a long time, but ultimately when it's your name at the bottom of that paycheck, the stakes are higher."

Buckhorn credits his predecessor, Pam Iorio, with helping smooth his transition by leaving the city on sound financial ground, reducing staff levels, keeping a tight grip on the city's finances and building up a record amount of reserve money.

Besides budgetary issues, Buckhorn has been focused on economic development.

To date, he pushed through council a package of tax incentives to new and existing businesses to attract investment and boost the economy – a program that was initiated by former Mayor Iorio, and approved by Tampa voters in the March 1 election.

He lured well-known land-use attorney Jim Shimberg from the private sector to serve as the city's attorney for the next four years and tapped a prominent investment banker and financial adviser, Sonya Little, to serve as the city's new chief financial officer.

 

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He also boosted the mayor's travel budget – three times what Iorio earmarked for travel during her last two years in office – to enable him to sell Tampa to potential investors.

Earlier this month, Buckhorn went on a two-day visit to Panama with local business leaders who are trying to lure Copa Airlines, the Latin American country's flagship carrier, to begin direct flights between Panama City and Tampa International Airport.

This fall, Buckhorn is expected to lead a much larger trade delegation to Panama.

Other trade missions are in the works, he said.

"I'm going to spend a lot of time on the road, preaching the gospel of Tampa," he said.

Buckhorn is also looking to local businesses to boost the economy, and has formed a committee of business leaders, developers, land use experts and architects to review the city's permitting and regulatory processes that he and developers say are overly regulated and too cumbersome.

He hopes to act on the group's recommendations over the next several months.

As part of his economic development push, Buckhorn has said he plans to consolidate several top administration positions and create a new deputy mayor post to oversee economic development within the city.

Buckhorn's emphasis on building the economy may save him from having to continually cut budgets, said Edwin J. Benton, University of South Florida political science professor.

"He seems to be keenly aware of the fact that one of the ways to improve the city's budgetary situation is to attract new businesses and residents," Benton said. "This is a reasonable and welcome alternative to raising taxes, fees, or special assessments."

In the meantime, unlike previous mayors -- with the exception of Iorio during her final term -- Buckhorn will have to devote a more time to figuring out how to maintain services with less money.

 

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People who work for Buckhorn, most of whom have served under other administrations, describe his leadership style as more laid back, more collegial, than Iorio.

There are fewer ties, more unbuttoned shirts and rolled up sleeves in staff meetings. He spends time walking around City Hall talking with employees and shows a willingness to listen to their ideas.

They say Buckhorn comes to the mayor's job with a firm grasp of the issues and knows most, if not all, of the key players in local government and the private sector.

"He landed on his feet and jumped right into action," says Santiago Corrada, Buckhorn's chief of staff, who served under Iorio. "Overall, it's been a very, very smooth transition."

Buckhorn did do something noticeably different from his predecessor, making an unexpected visit to a city council workshop on the panhandling issue last month, urging council members to support a citywide ban.

That's counter to his campaign pledge to send a proposed panhandling ban to council himself, but Buckhorn said in the recent interview that he realized after shortly taking office he didn't have enough votes on the policy-setting body to push the measure through.

The visit impressed Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, a 15-year veteran of Tampa politics. Typically, the mayor goes before council once a year to present the budget.

"That showed leadership, and a willingness to work with the legislative body," he said.

And despite the mayor's authority, he can't do impose a ban by executive order.

"It might be a strong-mayor government," Miranda said. "But he still needs four votes."

 

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To date, Buckhorn has yet to face his first political battle, but that could come when he enters into contractual negotiations this summer with the city's three labor unions.

Union officials are expected to push for step and merit pay raises in next year's budget, and Buckhorn will have to balance those demands against the city's financial realities.

Buckhorn's finance staff has also suggested that the police and fire departments – which have remained relatively unscathed throughout several consecutive years of budget-trimming – might have to take big hits in the next budget cycle, including layoffs.

Those negotiations will likely test Buckhorn's support from the city's powerful police and firefighter unions, both of which backed his bid for mayor in the recent city elections.

Neighborhood leaders say they will be looking to Buckhorn in coming months to work on a number of pressing issues, ranging from transportation to growth and development.

"We're still not sure what kind of attention neighborhoods will get under this mayor," said Tony LaColla, president of the Ybor City Neighborhood Civic Association. "It's too early."

Bob Rohrlack, president & CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said the city's business community is largely pleased with Buckhorn's performance as mayor.

"He's been very much involved with promoting Tampa, but also assuring the city's small businesses community that they matter," he said. "And that has been very refreshing."

Members of Buckhorn's inner circle say they understand the public is restless and is looking to the local government to help improve the city's stagnant economic climate.

But they insist the mayor has the city's best minds working on solutions.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," said David A. Straz Jr., a Tampa businessman and renowned philanthropist who is heading Buckhorn's mayoral transition team. "It took us a while to get into this financial mess and its going to take us a while to get out of it."


cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679

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