Despite a Tampa City Council meeting that started on a Thursday evening and ended on a Friday morning — and, at one point, had nearly every Council member throwing up their arms and/or staring off into space in frustration over a property tax stalemate, the final vote at 12:06 a.m. on Sept. 29 preserved the Fiscal 2018 City Budget what most of the people in New Tampa who attended the public hearing were hoping it would:
1) Money for the expansion of the New Tampa Recreation Center (NTRC) in Tampa Palms,
2) Funding for a new fire station on County Line Rd. near Grand Hampton and
3 Money to plan and design an autism Sensory Park in New Tampa.
“Last night was pretty good,’’ said District 7 (which includes all of New Tampa within the city limits) City Councilman Luis Viera.
The seven City Council members voted 4-3 to raise the city’s millage rate from $5.73 to $6.21 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value, the first time in 29 years that city property taxes have been raised.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn requested in his $972.4 million budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (which begins Oct. 1) an increase to $6.63 percent. The increase settled on by the Council means an increase of roughly $100 per year for a home in New Tampa, where the median price is about $260,000.
Buckhorn’s original request to raise the millage by 0.9 percent (and produce $15 million in revenue) was voted down to 0.6 percent at the first budget hearing (by a 4-3 vote) on Sept. 18. But, when the vote came up again at the second meeting on Sept. 28, the Council members voted against the 0.6 by a 4-3 vote, with Council Chair Yolie Capin (at-large District 3) changing her vote.
That set off hours of negotiations between the council members to find an acceptable millage increase. The arguments included angry volleys lobbed at Buckhorn about future deficits of more than $50 million that many of the council members said they were unaware of until recently. Almost every number between 0.3 and 0.6 was debated and defeated— including a motion by Dist. 1 (also at-large) Mike Suarez not to raise the millage rate at all, which would have resulted in massive budget cuts — until an increase of 0.475 passed with votes from Viera, Dist. 5’s Frank Reddick, Dist. 2 (at-large) Charlie Miranda and Dist, 4’s Harry Cohen.
“When Mike Suarez proposed scrapping everything and it lost by only one vote (4-3), I thought I better compromise fast,’’ Viera said, leading to the 0.475 percent increase that pulled Cohen, who had been denied three times after putting through a motion to make the increase .45 percent, to their side.
Because the millage rate increase is less than Buckhorn wanted, and therefore will bring in less revenue than expected, parks and recreation will still endure almost a $600,000 cut in operational costs. But, unlike past budgets that had money included for the NTRC only to see it pulled at the last minute, Viera said this budget was a winner locally, especially with potential lean times ahead due to a $50-million deficit the city is expected to be dealing with.
“We got 100 percent of what we wanted,’’ Viera said. “The cut to parks and rec is a small compromise we had to make. There’s no way we could get the rec center passed next year,; it probably would be a 5-6-year wait. This was the magic year.”
The now-$970 million budget includes $1.9 million for expanding the NTRC, which is one of only two facilities in the city that is home to the city’s highly touted dance, acrobatics and sports readiness program and has a waiting list of roughly 3,000, according to Tampa Palms resident Tracy Falkowitz.
Falkowitz also has said that the current building itself will not be expanded. Instead, a second building will be built on the property to accommodate more children.
An additional $1.4 million of 2018 Community Investment Taxes are budgeted to complete the construction of Fire Station No. 23, which will be located in the Grand Hampton/Grand Colony area off County Line Rd.
The station will house 39 firefighters, an engine company, a truck company and a rescue unit. No. 23 also will be home to a new District Fire Chief, who will coordinate responses between all four of New Tampa’s fire stations.
And, $90,000 is in the budget for study and design of a “sensory-friendly” park on the land behind BJs Wholesale Club, which will be developed in conjunction with the University of South Florida.
Falkowitz, the attorney who spearheaded the push to protect the money earmarked for New Tampa in the budget, sat through the entirety of both budget hearings. She said she wasn’t surprised the debate lasted into the early hours, based on her many discussions with multiple council members.
She said she was only worried twice that the panel might decide on a low enough millage rate that budget cuts would be required. In fact, she said that Miranda approached her during one break and told her “I don’t think you’ve got it”. And, when the .45 rate – which would have required cuts that could endanger the NTRC — came up for a vote.
“This never could have happened without all the community support,’’ Falkowitz said. “Without the New Tampa Council, the neighborhood associations, the rec center moms and dads and kids. That sea of red in front of the council and those that spoke up at those meetings was tremendous. Before this year, New Tampa was never heard and New Tampa was never really addressed. This time, we came together as a community and they heard us.”