Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has presented an annual budget that is fiscally sound and makes good use of the added revenues associated with rising property values.
The city expects property tax revenues to reach $123 million next year, about $7 million more than this year, and Buckhorn wants to use that money to beef up code enforcement efforts, make neighborhood improvements, boost economic development, and give 2 percent pay raises to city employees.
We have no issue with those priorities because the added spending is being absorbed without a hike in the property tax rate or an increase in fees, and with only a minimal dip of about $7.5 million into the city's rainy-day reserve fund. The fund will retain a healthy $95 million even after the withdrawal this year.
This is Buckhorn's third budget since taking office, and once again he is offering a responsible plan that should be approved by City Council members.
Of course, his task was a bit easier this year. The city issued 25 percent more residential construction permits and 20 percent more commercial permits than a year ago. Home starts in the first quarter of this year are up 46 percent compared to the first quarter last year, and several substantial apartment projects are expected to come out of the ground in the coming year.
Overall, Buckhorn's proposed $830.9 million budget represents a 3 percent increase over this year, a reasonable bump considering the anticipated growth.
For over a decade now, going back to former Mayor Pam Iorio, the city of Tampa has resisted the temptation to raise taxes or gut reserves, even during the worst of economic times. Facing multimillion-dollar shortfalls in each of his three years as mayor, Buckhorn has restructured debt, cut costs and made other austerity moves to help balance the books without boosting tax rates or raiding pension funds, as other cities have done with disastrous consequences.
Buckhorn says this will be the last time he dips into the reserves. He anticipates no budget deficit next year. "Clearly, there is light at the end of the tunnel," he says.
After so many dark years marked by deficits and budget cuts, it might be tempting to view the economic recovery as an opportunity to return to pre-recession staffing and spending levels. But Buckhorn says the city is able to function despite the deep cuts from previous years, and he is not interested in a return to those spending levels.
His fiscal stewardship serves the city well.