City of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spoke with the Neighborhood News recently about a number of issues related to New Tampa, especially the $970-plus million city budget for 2018 (see story on previous page). While some city residents have expressed concern over the proposed property tax increase from $5.73 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $6.21, many local leaders appear pleased with the budget overall.
NN: The wait for the expansion of the NTRC has been a frustrating one for many New Tampa residents. It seemed to make it into your budget proposals, but never survived the final cut. How important was it to make sure it survived this time?
BB: I absolutely understand it is a very popular center. The problem that we’ve had is trying to balance the budget in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and we are not even back to 2007 property tax revenue numbers yet.
In the 10 years since the 2007 recession really hit us, we have lost over $280 million in revenues as a result of the plummeting property values, as a result of reduction in the communications service tax revenues and the fact that interest rates are so much lower now. That loss of $280 million is a body blow to us. We are 700 employees less than we were in 2007, yet we have still managed to do the same job that we have always done and do it better than we’ve ever done it, with far less revenue (coming in). That tells you why some of the projects that would sort of be considered add ons have fallen off. It’s not because we wanted to, it’s because we had no choice.
NN: The local frustration stems from the fact that proposed funding in the past ended up diverted to other projects, like last year with the Cuscaden Pool in Ybor City. Is the perception that you care more about taking care of South Tampa a fair one?
BB: I get it. I understand. I don’t know that we choose one part of the city over another deliberately. There were some needs in other parts of the city that were more critical, but we’re doing far more with far less than we ever have. Hopefully, with this year’s budget, we’ll be able to do some of the things that people care about that five years ago couldn’t be determined to be critical.
NN: There has been an emphasis on parks in recent years, to the extent I believe one of the City Council members said the budget put parks over people, or something to that effect. How important do you feel the park projects have been citywide?
BB: I think they are hugely important. I think one of the reasons Tampa is in the midst of a transformation is because we are building out the urban core and building an amazing city that is attracting some of the best and brightest talent in the world. If we’re going to compete for that talent, it won’t because we are building great suburbs. It will be because we built a great city and a great downtown.
There is an economic reason that much of the attention over the last 5-6-7 years focused on building the urban core, including things like the Riverwalk and Julian B. Lane Park, because if we’re going to compete for that bright young talent, those millennials out there that can live anywhere in the world, you’ve got to have an urban environment that makes sense. If you attract the talent, then you attract the companies and you attract the jobs…when you add parks and open spaces and are taking advantage of that waterfront, then building an 18-hour-a-day city that people can work, live and play in is critical to that.
NN: Is that hard to explain to people who think projects in their area are being overlooked?
BB: There is a method to the madness and it’s working. By every measure, this is a different city than it was six years ago, with the best chapters still to be written. Parks and green space are a big part of that. If you don’t have quality of life, all the brick and mortar projects don’t make a bit of difference.
NN: For those paying taxes in New Tampa, though, is it not reasonable to expect more bang for their tax buck?
BB: This is the (fourth) fire station that we’ve built in New Tampa. We’ve made a serious commitment to the health and safety of New Tampa for certainly the 6.5 years I’ve been the mayor. Is there more that people would like? Absolutely. I get it. I understand the disconnect that some people feel from downtown Tampa in New Tampa. I’m perfectly cognizant of that. We work hard to try and eliminate that but I recognize that it’s there.
NN: So, this is a budget New Tampa should be happy with?
BB: I think (District 7) City Councilman Luis Viera has done a great job making sure the needs of New Tampa are reflected in this budget. There’s probably more in this year’s budget, if it passes at the higher millage rate, than there has been in the last 3-4 years…. A lot of things I think the folks in New Tampa will be very very happy with.
NN: The $90,000 to study and design a Sensory Park seemed to come out of nowhere. How did that come about?
BB: If you recall in my State of the City address, we launched an autism-friendly city project to make Tampa a city that is recognized for being autism friendly. (Note: In April, Buckhorn announced the “Autism Friendly Tampa” project, in which the city will work with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to provide more services to residents with autism.)
I don’t think people realize the number of people in our community that are touched by autism and have family members or friends that are somewhere on the spectrum.
The idea of a park that would be specifically geared towards those kids emerged out of those discussions. We had an obligation to finish building a park in the New Tampa area as a result of a developer agreement going back probably 15-20 years. We saw that location (behind the BJ’s Wholesale Club on Commerce Palms Dr. in Tampa Palms) as the perfect place to try and do it. It will be the first that we have done in the city. Hopefully, in next year’s budget, we can get the money for construction.
NN: After some debate, the City Council decided to lower your proposed millage rate increase. The new number won’t bring in as much property tax revenue, but can you still make do with that figure?
BB: We can because we made a decision to move $5 million of the remaining money from the BP settlement over to general revenue, which allowed us flexibility on the millage side. That is what allowed us to be supportive of the (.475 increase). There will still be pain in the budget, but we will be able to do the expansion of the New Tampa Rec Center, and some of the other projects that parts of our community care very deeply about. We also will be able to fund the new fire station (No. 23 on County Line Rd.). There will be a lot of benefit for New Tampa in this budget.