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Tampa mayor urged to drop Hixon Park improvement plan
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and allies say it's too late to turn back now on improvement plans.
By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008
[Ken Helle | Times]
Iorio plans to pay for the park over the next several years with $3-million per year in property taxes.
TAMPA - Mayor Pam Iorio has touted a planned $15-million renovation of Curtis Hixon Park as the making of Tampa's "Central Park," a living room for downtown residents, the front door to new children's and art museums.
But some say it's an unwise expense at a time when Iorio has proposed laying off nearly 100 employees, mostly janitorial and security workers, for a savings of about $1.3-million.
"Put it on hold. We've got more important things to do than build a park," said council member Joseph Caetano. "What was wrong with Curtis Hixon Park? Was it that bad?"
Council member John Dingfelder said he'll vote against the project when it comes to the council on March 20.
"Everything should be on the table," said Spencer Kass, president of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association. "If it's a choice between the park and police officers, I'll take the cops."
Iorio insists the park is off-limits for cuts.
She has said the park is vital for the success of the new museums, although museum leaders have said that's not the case.
She also points out that the city already has spent $3.8-million to make it happen, demolition of the existing art museum has begun to make way for it, and construction of some infrastructure, such as electrical work, is tied into construction of the two museums.
"We would just never change direction at this point. This is going to be so positive for the community," Iorio said in an interview last week. "That won't help with our operational budget even if it were stopped, which we don't intend to do."
Indeed, putting off the park wouldn't automatically dump $15-million into the general fund that is used to pay employees and run city services.
But it would add about $1.5-million a year to the fund.
Iorio plans to pay for the park over the next several years with $3-million per year in property taxes collected in a downtown special taxing district.
The district, created more than 20 years ago to promote economic development, allows property taxes collected by the city, county, Children's Board and other taxing authorities to go directly to improvements in the neighborhood. Thanks to significant growth downtown in recent years, it generated nearly $17-million a year in property taxes this year. Most of that money goes to pay off construction debt for the Tampa Convention Center. But the rest is available for other projects.
Iorio wants it for the park.
Dingfelder would rather see that money go back to the taxing authorities - the county, the Children's Board and the city - which would give Tampa about $1.5-million a year.
"That would alleviate the need to eliminate those 100 people," said Dingfelder.
Larry Parker, head of the city's firefighters union, which is at a deadlock with Iorio on salary negotiations, also believes the park should be postponed.
"That could be delayed for a year or two and still be done during her term when things are better," he said.
Preliminary figures show declines in property tax revenue from state tax reforms will leave the city with a deficit of nearly $16.8-million next year.
Iorio has suggested reducing that deficit by $3.4-million by making technological upgrades and consolidating and privatizing some services, which would result in laying off about 100 employees.
City Council members generally oppose that plan. But some still support the park project.
Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said the money being used to pay for the park is available because of private investment downtown that boosted property values in the special taxing district, but it will result in a place to hold festivals and other cultural events for the whole city.
"That's the people's park," Burdick said. "The citizens need a place where they can go to celebrate and be together."
Council member Mary Mulhern said "it's a little late" to reverse course.
And council member Charlie Miranda said that while scrapping the park sounds good politically, some contracts on the project are already in place and its construction provides an economic stimulus by creating jobs.
"It's pretty hard to back away from that commitment," he said.