Gov't-unions prefer tax-hikes to privatization

Two weeks after voters approved a property tax cut, Tampa taxpayers might lose some of those savings to an increase in the trash rate. On Wednesday, Mayor Pam Iorio proposed raising the garbage pickup fees about $19 a year to raise $3.2 million. The money would help offset the city's projected $16.8 million shortfall for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Like governments across the state, the city is looking for ways to cut costs and raise revenue. In addition to raising trash rates, the city is looking at other ideas, including layoffs and a reduction in debt payments.

The gap between revenue and expenditures largely is because of property tax law changes, including the Jan. 29 passage of Amendment 1, and projected increases in the police department's budget.

Iorio suggested raising solid waste rates by $1.58 a month in a meeting Wednesday with the city council to discuss budget issues and potential layoffs. The measure would need the council's approval.

A couple of weeks ago, Iorio told The Tampa Tribune she did not want to make up the difference by raising rates for services. On Wednesday, however, she said the trash rate increase is "pretty small."

"As we were going through options, we saw this," Iorio said. The council last approved a solid waste rate increase, for 3 percent, in 2005.

The average solid waste bill for a residential customer is $25.25. The roughly $19 annual increase would cut into the approximately $300 the average Tampa homeowner is expected to save because Amendment 1 passed in January.

The trash rate increases would be accompanied by a change in the way the solid waste department is organized.

Combining Divisions Of Government

About three years ago, Iorio created the "Clean City" division of government, responsible for ensuring medians are clean, litter is picked up and illegal advertising signs are removed. The $4.5 million division drew its money from the city's general fund.

Iorio wants to make the division part of the solid waste department, which is run as an enterprise fund, meaning money generated from garbage pickup rates goes toward sustaining the department.

Moving the Clean City division to the solid waste department would take some pressure off of the city's general fund, but a rate increase would be necessary, Iorio said. No timeline for that rate increase has been discussed.

The city also expects to cut about $3.8 million through a previously announced plan - called "Changing the Business of Government" - to lay off about 100 people, mostly janitors and security personnel. The mayor wants to hire private firms instead, a proposal that has met resistance from some city council members.

That resistance remained palpable Wednesday at the meeting in the mayor's conference room, where Councilman John Dingfelder pointed out that the council had concerns about the mayor's plan. Iorio acknowledged the council has the right to vote against the contracts that would be needed to privatize the work, but not without consequence.

"The cuts will be made somewhere else, and the cuts likely will be made where the public will feel it," Iorio said.

The city also expects to whittle down the deficit by $4.5 million because the debt service on bonds issued to pay for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is declining.

The rest of the deficit would be balanced through fund transfers, attrition and layoffs.

Iorio said she could not estimate how many city workers would lose their jobs but said layoffs would be "minimal."

Last year, 121 people were laid off - though many later got other city jobs - in a move that saved the city about $14 million.

"We're not looking at anything nearly as severe as that," Iorio said.

Iorio repeatedly said she wanted to make cuts without affecting city services.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern suggested the city consider salary cuts or merit raise freezes for city employees not covered by union contracts.

Iorio said she doesn't want to freeze wages for nonunion employees while continuing to give union workers raises. The fire union, she said, wants raises averaging about 10 percent, whereas the city administration has offered 5.8 percent increases. The two sides are at an impasse in their negotiations, and the matter is expected to be settled by the council.

Iorio asked the council "to send a message" on pay increases when voting on the fire contract.

Full Budget Coming This Summer

Dingfelder asked whether the city could move more slowly on plans to redesign Curtis Hixon Park. Phase 1 is expected to cost the city about $15 million. Iorio said she intends to proceed as planned.

Iorio will present a full budget to the council this summer, and public hearings will be held in September before the council votes on the spending plan.

Also Wednesday, Fire Chief Dennis Jones told the council he has long-term plans to build two new fire stations in the New Tampa area, hire 81 new firefighters and staff two ambulances, for a total cost of $16.6 million. Iorio said she wants to continue hiring seven firefighters a year, despite budget shortfalls.

The police department's budget is projected to increase from about $127 million to $133 million.

Several council members and the mayor cautioned that although they might be able to cut from the budget without dramatically affecting services, they have deep concerns about what lies ahead. The state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, they said, isn't looking favorably upon local governments, and new plans by the state Legislature also could have a big impact on the city.

"This is only the start of the problem," Councilman Charlie Miranda said.


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