Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio focused on the basics during her two terms as mayor, and her final budget, which the City Council takes up this month, builds on her success in making the city a more livable place. Next year's budget includes nothing new or particularly grand, beyond a pay raise for city employees that taxpayers cannot afford. Overall, though, Iorio leaves the city in a strong position for her successor. The next mayor will need to get a handle on employee pensions, but the city has the essentials in place to redevelop the urban core once the economy recovers. Mayors use their budgets to establish priorities, and Iorio moved quickly to focus resources on the neighborhoods after she took office in 2003. Investments in small projects that impact the everyday life in an area, from street resurfacing to sidewalks, nearly quadrupled during her time in office, to $10 million this year. Parks were outfitted with trash cans, play equipment and lights, and the landscaping was better maintained. By keeping up appearances, the city helped keep housing values from falling even further in this down real estate market. Iorio would also use her final budget to continue investing in big-ticket infrastructure, notably the city's aging water systems. Replacing 6 miles of pipe in downtown lays the foundation for the city to build a much more robust residential core in the city center. The new Curtis Hixon Park, the Riverwalk and the new arts and children's museums and history center also are long-term investments that will offer significant returns over time. Iorio helped them along by committing reasonable public subsidies downtown and by having a vision for the city center. Iorio's refusal to give away the store to developers helped her cope with the recession better than many mayors. She avoided debt, limited the city's exposure to public-private ventures and saved money by consolidating city departments and services. The city's cash reserve fund is healthier than when Iorio took office, even though property tax revenues continue to fall. The challenge now will be to invest even modestly in capital and neighborhood projects as housing continues to suffer and growth remains anemic. The next mayor will need to get much more serious about controlling employee pension costs. Iorio has reduced the city work force by nearly 10 percent since she was elected. But pension costs keep shooting through the roof. The city needs to bring salaries and benefits more in line with reality. Iorio had better uses for the $2.4 million she budgeted for merit and longevity raises next year. City workers deserve a decent retirement, but heavy payouts are not sustainable. The next mayor also needs to assess whether 4,400 employees are still too many. Iorio has brought discipline to the budget, but the financial outlook is less than rosy, and the cost-cutting is not over yet.Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times
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