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Harry Cohen says Tampa budget vote will ‘set the stage’ for years

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen warned the city’s  budget vote Friday will have long-term effects.

Cohen’s compromise proposal to have the Council vote on raising the millage rate by 0.475 broke a seven-hour stalemate just after midnight Friday morning on Mayor Bob Buckhorn‘s fiscal year 2018 budget.

Later in the day, Cohen said the ramifications of that vote will be with the city over the next four to eight years.

Speaking at the Oxford Exchange during a previously scheduled appearance at Cafe Con Tampa, Cohen methodically described the dilemma facing Council members after Buckhorn informed them in July of a huge bond payment — going back 21 years — that was coming due in the upcoming fiscal year. That balloon payment will ultimately result in the city paying somewhere between $95-$100 million for that alone over the next five years.

To add insult to injury, Buckhorn didn’t tell the council about the looming debt until this summer, though his administration later acknowledged that it knew those payments were coming due for several years.

“I think it’s fair to say that all the Council members were absolutely enraged,” Cohen told the audience. “Enraged, number one at the deal, and enraged, number two, that we hadn’t been told about it sooner.”

But Cohen isn’t bitter, saying that it’s all about dealing with the reality at hand, not wishing it were something different. He promised that there will be more discussions in the immediate future about why and how this happened.

The deal is this: The next mayor and City Council — all of whom (except Luis Veira and Guido Maniscalco) are term limited in 2019 — are going to have to pay $13.6 million every year for five years to satisfy that obligation.

“That is money that is being paid for money that was spent 20 years ago,” Cohen said.

“This is a lot of money over a relatively short time,” he added, calling $13 million a year taken out for debt payments out of a $900 million budget “no joke.”

Although the Council’s vote on a millage increase of 0.475 is nearly half what Buckhorn originally proposed back in July, Cohen revealed what other Council members told in July — that he had given them a menu of options to choose from; in fact, the .0475 figure is only slightly lower than one of the proposals he had offered.

“The mayor first told me that the number he was looking at [was] somewhere between 0.5 and 0.75,” Cohen said. “I think that’s entirely too high to impose on people in one year.”

Part of Cohen’s (and other council members) reluctance to raise property taxes is that it comes a year after the taxpayers were hit with a package to improve stormwater infrastructure costing $251 million.

A typical homeowner in his South Tampa district (the wealthiest district in the city) is now likely to pay an extra $14 a month because of those two assessments, Cohen said.

That $251 million assessment to being addressing Tampa’s historic problem with handling acute storms is actually beginning to work, Cohen believes, specifically, on the maintenance on storm drains, ponds and ditches.

Commenting on driving through the city after one intense (non-hurricane) rainstorm this summer: “I felt like I was starting to see a difference in at least some of the flooding that goes on in the community.”

Commenting on Cohen’s description of the council being “enraged” at Buckhorn, one member of the audience asked Cohen if that meant the council would now begin to hold him accountable for allowing budget director Sonya Little to continue to live outside of the city limits of Tampa, violating the city’s charter. The issue was previously reported by former WTSP reporter Mike Deeson.

The mayor has said that it wasn’t a violation because Little was only an “interim” hire.

“Now that it’s fairly clear that the council was misled over the true state of the city’s debt obligations, do you think you will do anything about the chief financial officer — who’s the highest paid employee in the city — was hired illegally and holds her job illegally, in violation of the residency requirement in the charter?”

Ever the diplomat, Cohen would only say: “My understanding is that she has moved into the city.”

Cohen will soon be making another visit to Cuba with Council chair Yolie Capin. However, that was before the State Department’s warning travelers not to visit Cuba, a response to what they are describing as “specific attacks” on diplomats.

Discussing the political landscape, Cohen waxed nostalgia about the days with just the major networks and newspapers providing media coverage. He said only print (and presumably digital) media had covered the budget discussions in the local Tampa Bay area market, noting how there were television cameras present for the council’s regular Thursday meeting — but not for the budget, but to report on a discussion over adult massage parlors.


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 [email protected]

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