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After 7 hours, Tampa City Council votes to raise property taxes

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Shortly after midnight Friday morning, the Tampa City Council voted 4-3 to raise property taxes for the first in 29 years.

The vote will raise the millage to 0.475, from $5.73 to 6.2076 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

It came after seven long hours, which included two breaks for budget director Sonya Little and her financial team to go recalculate how differed proposed rate increases would affect Mayor Bob Buckhorn‘s proposed $900 million-plus budget.

The board voted last week to raise the millage to 0.6, down from Buckhorn’s original request of 0.9. But when that proposal came up early in Thursday’s meeting, Council Chair Yolie Capin flipped her vote, creating what would end up being a night filled with frustrations from Council members, several unhappy about the way the whole budget process had played out this year.

In the end, Frank Reddick, Charlie Miranda, Harry Cohen and Luis Viera voted for the increase. Capin, Mike Suarez and Guido Maniscalco voted no.

Earlier in the meeting, Cohen had said he thought that the 0.6 millage increase was still too much to bear.

“I think we owe it to the public to absolutely squeeze every dollar” out of the budget, Cohen said.

Reddick bitterly said “no one gave a damn” about saving taxpayers money a year ago when the Council approved a $251 million stormwater tax.

Other proposals came and went and were rejected, including Councilman Suarez’ gambit to have no millage increase but use $5 million left from the BP oil settlement to square the budget. That too, went down to defeat.

The reason that Buckhorn was asking for the first property revenue hike in 29 years was several-fold. That included debts going back to the Dick Greco administration from 1996. One was for a measure to pay for a new police department headquarters, some police and fire assets. The debt on that was $6 million for this year, and $13.8 million a year for several years after that.

There is also a 1997 federal loan of $6 million due that paid for the Centro Ybor shopping and movie complex.

There’s also expended revenue loss from the expected 2018 passage of a constitutional amendment that would expand the homestead exemption for homeowners.

Suarez had been the most publicly critical of Buckhorn’s neglecting to tell the Council of those big balloon payments until this past July. He said that with the staring at deficits of over $54 million beginning next fiscal year, it was a dereliction of duty not to start paying down that future debt. Instead, the original budget added $22 million in spending.

He grew incredulous that the additional $15 million in the budget that would result from the 0.9 property tax increase was for more programs, with only a third of that money going for public safety. He said there was no “belt-tightening” happening at all under Buckhorn’s budget. “We’re talking about adding money in, and we’re not talking about moving money out.”

“If the mayor doesn’t put some leadership forward in order for us to start talking about this budget, not just this one only, but the next six budgets, we’re in deep trouble,” he warned.

The public hearing of the meeting was dominated by two distinct groups with the most at stake — New Tampa residents who said that the Council needed to approve a budget that included an expansion of the New Tampa Community Park Center, which they said has a waiting list of more than 3,000 for gymnastics and dance classes, and members and supporters of public access and the education channel, where Mayor Buckhorn has decided to cut all the city’s funding.

The Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network was poised to lose all the $108,000 it receives from the city, leaving it with a budget of less than $250,000.

Scott Maiden, president and CEO of TBAEN, said that his agency was expecting to take “a haircut.”

“Instead,” he said, “we did not expect to be fully decapitated.”

Maiden added that nobody from the city had ever told him why they were to lose all of their funding.

Mario Nunez, the host of the “The Tampa Natives Show” on the Arts & Education Network, repeated his criticism that he thought the cuts were punitive because of his own criticism of Buckhorn selling fiberglass figures from Lowry Park Zoo’s Fairyland Park in an auction, versus donating them to entrepreneur Richard Gonzmart.

TBCN faced a cut of more than $207,000, more than a third of its $600,000 annual budget.

No other nonprofit groups funded by the city received more than a 10 percent cut. Cohen and Maniscalco said that it was unfair only the two stations were losing all of their funding. After Councilman Frank Reddick asked administration officials why they zeroed out their budget. Dennis Rogero, Buckhorn’s chief of staff, said the stations didn’t relate to the city’s core services, which resulted in a few catcalls from the audience.

Like last week’s hearing, New Tampa was in the house advocating for their causes. Steve Falkowitz said that approving funding for the expansion of the rec center would remove the “children from a waiting list that they never should have been on in the first place.”

Former City Councilman Rudy Fernandez said he was concerned that nobody spoke out in opposition to the tax increase at the first public hearing. He said he was speaking for three groups of people: 1) those who own expensive homes; 2) renters who don’t realize that their rents are going to increase because landlords don’t benefit from homestead exemption; and 3) people who might have moved to Tampa but won’t because of the rising millage increase.

“Raising millage sets a bad precedent,” he said.

Steve Bernstein from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the tax increase.

“We did not arrive at that position lightly,” he said. “Is this tax increase really a measure of last resort?”

That will continue to be debated.

At one point, Council members asked if they could call it a night — and meet again on Friday afternoon. City Attorney Sal Territo said that wasn’t possible, since they would have to re-advertise the meeting, and with the new fiscal year beginning Sunday, that would immediately cause all sorts of problems.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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