Will he or won’t he campaign for Obama next year?
By Chris Ingram
Irreverent View spent an hour with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn over omelets and coffee this morning – Buckhorn ordered the meat lovers with hot sauce – a man after my own heart. The following excerpts are from our conversation.
Irreverent View: Like most local governments the city is facing a budget crisis, what are you going to do to balance the budget?
Buckhorn: We have General Revenue funds coming in at $350 million and then we have self sufficient funds – things like parking and solid waste that are way under. The solid waste department for example is generating less revenue due to a shrinking customer base as a result of the economy. The city’s parking department is $7 million in the red due in large part because of the two parking garages in Ybor City that are just bleeding red ink. There are other inefficiencies in our parking system as well.
We have $120 million in reserves [which Buckhorn attributed thankfully to former Mayor Pam Iorio]. We might have to tap into some of it, but we’re going to wait and see and make a decision once all the department budget proposals come in. But using the reserves won’t solve our long-term problem.
Irreverent View: Is the city’s support of things like the Lowry Park Zoo and the Aquarium an appropriate use of tax dollars when we’re facing all these shortfalls?
Buckhorn: We ought to do what we do best. Address health and public safety issues, water and sewer, those types of things. The rest is up for debate. But we’ve built these things [like the Zoo and Aquarium] and we can’t just walk away from them now. The trolley is another example. It bleeds red ink but we can’t mothball it and just walk away. I could sit here and say ‘I told you so’ but now it’s on my watch and has to be addressed.
Irreverent View: The Republican National Convention will be in town next year, just how big of a deal is that for Tampa?
Buckhorn: A lot of good stuff will come from the RNC convention. It will be unbelievable. Fifteen thousand journalists [are expected to be in town]. It will be the chance to showcase the city. It’s the chance of a lifetime for Tampa.
Irreverent View: Panhandling in Tampa has gotten out of control. It’s not only a blight on the city and a nuisance, but it has become a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public with all these people standing in the medians and in the roads. Why doesn’t the city have the stomach to do something like St. Petersburg did by enacting an outright ban?
Buckhorn: If it were up to me, we would have a total ban. I said that in the campaign, and I still support one. We basically have three votes in support – [council members] Cohen, Suarez, and Montelione – but we need one more. The others are not there yet. We need one more vote. We’re having a workshop soon to structure another proposed ordinance.
Irreverent View: Do you think that the city has any legal liability for its lack of having addressed this matter and effectively removing the threat to the public’s health and safety?
Buckhorn: (laughs) There is probably a lawyer out there that could make that case.
Irreverent View: So what is holding this up?
Buckhorn: Some on council just don’t want to put the news vendors selling papers on the street out of a job.
Irreverent View: So it’s a job protection issue…
Buckhorn: My ordinance [when I was on council] would have banned anyone from the median. Once a year registered charities could apply for a one-time solicitation permit [such as the firefighters for their boot drive]. But the courts overturned it because it singled some groups out, so now we’re going to have to go nuclear and ban them all.
Irreverent View: Will we be seeing all these panhandlers on every corner when the Republican convention rolls into town next year?
Buckhorn: We’ll have this fixed long before the convention.
Irreverent View: What can the city do to address jobs and the economy from a short-term standpoint?
Buckhorn: We can do a lot to make Tampa a place that is more competitive. We’re not a place that is known as being very friendly to business and we’re going to change that. The permitting process is a perfect example. Getting a permit in Tampa is like getting your teeth pulled without any anesthesia. We need to consolidate agencies involved with permitting and regulations. We need to put one person in charge that has the authority to make decisions. Right now when you need a permit to build a building and there is a tree on the property that is in the way, one department is there that will deny the permit. That department is doing its job – it’s supposed to protect trees and the environment, but at what cost? They should be able to say, build the building but plant another tree. We’ve got to change the mission from process to output. I want to change it so that anyone with a development issue will go to a department under one chain of command.
When we get through making these changes, this will be a city that welcomes the input and investment of businesses looking to move here. Until then, we get no tax revenue.
Irreverent View: Okay, what about economic development in the long-term?
Buckhorn: Right now, Tampa’s brand is negligible. We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to create a brand and back it up.
We’ve also got to recognize where our strategic strengths are – in defense with MacDill, biosciences at USF and Moffitt Cancer Center for example. The trick is to move those assets from the lab to the marketplace.
Irreverent View: Those are all basically government or government subsidized assets though. What about private-sector jobs?
Buckhorn: Government jobs don’t create wealth. I don’t want to create government jobs, but these resources can serve as an incubator for the private sector.
Did you know that one daily international flight from Tampa to Europe will generate $153 million in economic impact and 1,300 jobs for the Tampa Bay area?
Irreverent View: That begs the question, why isn’t someone offering some incentives to the airlines to get some routes?
Buckhorn: I intend to. (As mayor, Buckhorn is on the Aviation Authority).
I sense there is some new optimism in town and that the economy is turning. There is also a lot of new blood at HART, on the Aviation Authority with a new director, a new county manager. I think this new generation is more interested in getting a job done than fighting as they have in the past.
Irreverent View: You are elected in a non-partisan race, but everyone knows you have been a Democrat your whole life. Still, you trounced your opponent and certainly got a significant part of the Republican vote. That said, if President Barack Obama comes to Tampa to campaign for his reelection, will you campaign with him?
Buckhorn: I don’t know. I haven’t been asked that question before. I am a Democrat. The I-4 corridor will be important to President Obama. But my job is to run a city. When the RNC is here next year, I’m not a partisan. As for Obama, I will cross that bridge when I get to it.
I don’t see a whole lot of energy for the GOP candidates right now but most people aren’t paying attention.
People will reelect me based on my performance, not my politics.
Irreverent View: Some will vote based on politics.
Buckhorn: And those who choose to do so are entitled. But I’ve got a $30 million budget hole to fill and I’m not worried about this right now.
Irreverent View: You’re very cozy with the police and firefighters unions, perhaps too close. Is your closeness going to keep you from being able to make the necessary changes to their pensions?
Buckhorn: Actually Chris, the fire and police pensions are models of well managed government pensions. And you have to understand the whole picture. We don’t pay anything into their Social Security – that saves the city seven percent of their salary every year. The program is a mutually shared benefit and mutually shared pain pension program – and that is unique. Over the course of 25 years or so it’s been good for taxpayers. It has had a 1,400 percent gain since inception, and only one money manager that whole time. It is 90 percent funded with over $1.5 billion in funds. There is no looming crisis with the Tampa police and firefighters’ pension funds.
Are their benefits better than other city employee pension benefits? Yes. Their multiplier is higher and they can retire earlier. But they die earlier too – due to stress, and they also are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us every day.
The general employee’s pension is separate. That is where reform is needed, and the performance of that pension is not nearly as good.
Irreverent View: No doubt after your election you suddenly found you have more new friends than you can shake a stick at. How do you deal with that?
Buckhorn: I can see through all the bulls***. I can tell who is genuine and who is opportunistic. But regardless, everyone gets the same respect. If someone can help me help the city achieve our goals I welcome their participation and I don’t care if they helped me before, supported me or not, or even if they like me. If they can help the city – let’s go!
Irreverent View: Earlier this year you joked about your kids expecting the Secret Service to drop them off at school once you became mayor. How is your family adjusting to your new role?
Buckhorn: It [being mayor] complicates it. Kathy and I work to ensure the kids have a normal life. My ten year old daughter Grace is at an age where it’s exciting – she gets it. My five year old daughter Colleen is oblivious – she’s just a kid and she’s happy coloring.
We protect them and work together juggling multiple schedules. We have a great support network that helps out when needed. I still make the girls lunch every morning and drop them off at school. We try not to schedule things on Sundays. I don’t want the job to consume me. My first job is being a dad.
Irreverent View: Well said. Thank you for your time today.
Buckhorn: Thank you.
Chris Ingram is the president and founder of 411 Communications a corporate and political communications firm, and publisher of Irreverent View. Ingram is a frequent pundit on Fox News and CNN, and has written opinion columns for the Washington Times, UPI, and National Review online. He is the Republican political analyst for Bay News 9, the only 24 hour all news channel in Florida’s largest media market. The opinions expressed here are those of author and do not represent the views of Bay News 9. E-mail him at: Chris@IrreverentView.com.
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