Tampa: City services, job growth outpace rise in population

Tampa's mayor says the city provides what "the public wants, expects and demands."

Published April 15, 2007

TAMPA -- Count Trish Moore among the chorus for local governments to tighten their belts.

Moore says her property taxes have risen so much she had to sell a commercial building because tenants couldn't afford the rent needed to cover her climbing costs.

Meanwhile, in the past seven years, property taxes paid to the city of Tampa have doubled to more than $164.4-million, and Moore complains she still drives on pothole-damaged roads that flood in a rainstorm.

"Government is wasteful. That's a known fact," she says.

Not to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. She argues spending has focused on "services that the public wants, expects and demands."

Those include police and fire protection, and programs at recreation centers, such as fitness memberships that cost $10 a month and after-school programs priced at $4 a semester.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis reveals that, based on 2007 budget projections, those three areas will suck up more than 50 percent of the city's general fund, half of which comes from property tax revenue.

The budgets for those departments have increased by $73.6-million in the past seven years.

"More people move into a community, more services are needed," Iorio said. "It's a simple equation."

Spending growth in Tampa has been lower than some other local governments. From 2000 to 2005, the rate of population growth and inflation in Tampa was 24.4 percent; the city's spending increased by about 35 percent in that time. In Hillsborough County, spending was more than twice the rate of growth and inflation.

'My money's worth'

Some spending can be attributed to the sales tax passed in 1996 by voters to build fire stations, rec centers and other neighborhood improvements. Property taxes pay to operate and staff such facilities.

This year, the city broke ground on a recreation center in fast-growing New Tampa that will offer a gymnastics program, delighting area resident Terry Wolford.

"The city has had an open ear to everything we have been asking for," she said.

Wolford pays taxes on the home she lives in, which comes with a $25,000 exemption and a 3 percent cap on tax increases.

"I don't consider my taxes to be outrageous," she said. "I'm getting my money's worth."

Over seven years, the city added 392 jobs paid from the general fund, most of them in parks and recreation.

Salary and benefits costs have risen by $91.7-million since 2000. Meanwhile, property insurance premiums have increased from $2.2-million in 2002 to $3.9-million, for half as much coverage.

While public safety and parks dominate, the largest percentage spending increases in the past seven years went to revitalize blighted neighborhoods and for technology upgrades.

The tech department budget, now at $12-million, has doubled since 2000. Among the things 15 new hires manage are the city e-government services, which allow people to pay parking tickets, water bills, monitor public works projects and apply for permits online.

"That didn't even exist three years ago" said Jim Buckner, department director. This month, the city hit a milestone with more than $1-million worth of online transactions.

Property taxes also have helped decaying neighborhoods through special taxing districts that funnel tax increases back into the areas where they were collected.

Tampa has nine such districts, more than anywhere in the state. As real estate values have climbed, payments to the districts have risen by $9.5-million since 2000. The money pays for landscaping, sidewalks, streetlights, drainage improvements, promotional activities and the staff to manage projects.

The districts take property tax money from the rest of the city, but "the long-term ramifications are so important to everyone," Iorio said. "Crime goes down, people are employed, the tax base is enhanced."

Still, some believe there's fat in the city's budget.

Former City Council member Shawn Harrison, champion of a modest property tax rate cut last year, said the city needs police officers, firefighters and recreation staffers. But he wonders if all new hires have been necessary.

Some positions created in the past few years: a transit manager, Riverwalk manager and creative services industries manager - jobs that pay around $100,000 each.

"In the big picture, do they really account for that much? I don't know. But they all add up," Harrison said.

Squeeze to come

Moore calls the city's $7.5-million emergency reserve, created in 2006, a crock, and is loath to give two thumbs up to even things city leaders call essentials.

"Do I support carte blanche increases in the police department, fire department and parks and rec? No. Everyone should be held accountable," she said.

Iorio acknowledges the tax system needs fixing, including changing how properties are assessed and giving commercial property owners similar protections to homeowners'.

But with bigger reforms looming, Iorio is preparing for a squeeze.

"If there are radical changes made in Tallahassee and the local governments respond as they will need to, by cutting back," she said, "that's when you're going to hear from the vast majority of people who are not part of this property tax debate."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.