Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has a little over a year left in office before her tenure ends at City Hall. Like the mayors of virtually every major city in the country these days, she's dealing with the ramifications of one of the worst economic spells the U.S. has seen in nearly a century, which means 2010 will bring news from 315 E. Kennedy Boulevard of more cuts in services and jobs.
At the same time, Tampa, and in particular its downtown, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. But there's lots of work still to be done. Iorio's much-discussed Riverwalk is coming together, but needs millions more to complete as it winds northward from the Tampa Convention Center into what is known as the Heights project.
There's also the proposed one-cent sales tax referendum on transportation that is expected to go before voters this fall. The mayor is determined to see the ballot measure succeed, and says that win or lose, her support of light rail will continue after she hands off the reins of power next year.
Last Thursday, Mayor Iorio sat down in her office with this reporter and CL editor David Warner to talk about these issues and more. Afterwards, she drove us to the Tampa By History Center, which has just celebrated its first year of existence, for a walking and water-taxi tour of the Riverwalk. We expressed surprise that she didn't have her own chauffeur; she explained that after the death in a hit-and-run accident four years ago of her bodyguard and personal driver, Tampa Police Detective Juan Serrano, she was so shaken by the loss that she has opted to forgo that luxury ever since.
Here is a condensed version of our interview.
MP: It's been a big month for you, with the opening of the new Tampa Museum of Art, the new Curtis Hixon Park and the Riverwalk developing. Is it coming together as you maybe hoped when you were contemplating this in your first years in office?
PI: I drove by Curtis Hixon Park yesterday — you know it's packed, it's become like an instant gathering place, a focal point for our downtown — and people say to me, "Now I can enjoy the river." And I say, "That's that I wanted to achieve... I wanted us to look at that river as an asset and something we can interact with. One of the first things I nixed when I got into office: ...[W]here the new TMA is, there was going to be a condo tower. A condo tower! And I said, "I'm not approving a condo tower in a public park." I mean, condos can go anywhere. They can go in private land. But public park space in a city is precious, green space is so important, and so, that was the first thing that I didn't do. I took that and said that's not ever going to be signed, that project's going away... [T]his whole thing as you've chronicled in your paper has had a lot of bumps along the way... but you know in the end, after seven years, I think it's all worked out...
Now I have one year left and I've got one other big item that I think is so important that I will never give up on [it]... that is, bringing modern transit to this county and ultimately to this region. First we've got to get the majority of the board to put it on the ballot in ordinance form. Then we've got to work to get the referendum passed on November 2nd ...I don't know what I will do next after being mayor, but this issue will be something that I will always work on as a former mayor, in different capacities. It will always be on the forefront of what I work on because it needs a lot of care and attention in order to be done right...
MP: What about oversight?
PI: I think you always have to hold the mayor and the county administrator and the director of HART accountable from here on out... If there's a person running for mayor who doesn't say, "Implementation of this light rail and this expanded bus service is number one," we've got trouble, because this system is being built in the city of Tampa...
David Warner: Do you see any candidates who won't have this as a priority?
PI: (Pause.) Well, let's see. I'm sure it won't be a priority for all of them. Let's see who steps up and offers leadership on this issue...
MP: Let's talk about the stimulus plan [the one-year anniversary of which took place the day before our interview]. Tell us what it's done for the city of Tampa.
PI: Hey, you know what? (Thumbs-up gesture). We've had a great start to this year. First we got... $28 million to invigorate the Central Park Encore project which has been a priority of mine. Then, the president and vice president come to our community and give us $1.25 billion and we are going to be the focal point for high-speed rail development in this country. Hey, this is great. Plus we got an extra $10 million in foreclosure help. February 26th is the groundbreaking for the Crosstown Connector. We were discussing the Crosstown Connector back when I was on the County Commission and the MPO 20 something years ago. It's going to go to construction probably February 26th — that is a nearly $400 million project, of which $80 million came from stimulus money, otherwise it'd be sitting on a shelf, still. So that is invigorating... [Y]ou'll never hear me say this has created blank amount of jobs, because I don't know. But all I know is that as a community we are better off with these investments than without.
MP: You support the president. How do you think he's doing — it's been a bit rocky for him the past few months.
PI: Here's his problem. He's perhaps too thoughtful for the political process. The political process likes the sound bite, it eats up the negative, it likes the person who says "This is bad, that's bad, this is wrong, bad, bad." ...I get frustrated sometimes with the talking heads on the cable because I think they give the other folks a pass. They need to say to them, "What is your plan for creating jobs? I don't hear it." ...it's almost like this transit debate. It's easy to sit back in your office and never attend a single meeting, never do a single thing about it, and then when a proposal comes in front of you say, "I don't like this." And of course, who's going to get the press? The person who says "I don't like that." And meanwhile, all the people who have spent hours, days, years, months, whatever of their life working and toiling over the numbers in the spreadsheets and all of that are soon forgotten. It's the same thing on the national level. And I think right now the negative people are better at messaging. And it's harder to be thoughtful...This is what we say we want in politics, and yet when we get it, it's so easy to tear it down. It's why we end up with superficial politics. Because it is the superficial that tends to rise to the top in the media.
MP: The city has cut 10 percent of its workforce, or 527 positions, over the past few years. A recent report said that 13 fiscal and accounting managers were given 90 days' notice. Another 30 employees are expected to be laid off next week. Are we going to see more cuts?
PI: ...I have to make a bunch of cuts this year. When the next mayor comes in, he or she will have to make a lot of cuts... and the next year, and the next year, and the next year. And these cuts are permanent... It's because of a law that [the FL Legislature] passed in 2007 which said, "Local government, it doesn't matter if your tax base grows, you can only grow by the Florida personal per capita income rate." So, first of all, we're suffering because our tax base is declining, so that's easy to understand, but when the day comes when the tax base starts to grow again, government will not reap the benefit of that. Because we are stuck to this formula... So if every year your employees, which are about 80 percent of your budget, cost more than you're allowed to grow, then you have to keep on shrinking the number of employees. This is permanent. This is not just the city of Tampa — it's Hillsborough County, it's Pinellas.
MP: Should we repeal that law?
PI: You bet! It should have never gone into place to begin with. First of all, the legislators decided some years ago to be punitive toward local government. I said this at the time: What business does state government have telling local governments what we ought to be spending our money on? People elected me and the Council to do that, and if they don't like us, they can boot us out. But we're the closest to people. We're the ones who are in Publix talking to folks. I'm the one that's in Target on Saturday talking to people, I'm the one who's out there with my town hall meetings totally accessible. Try that with the state. Try that with the federal government. Good luck. So, it's absolutely wrong-headed for the legislature to say, "We know better and we're going to artificially restrict your revenues." And it's actually dangerous for us as a community, because for three years I've been able to protect police and fire, but it gets to the point where they're half your budget. You get to the point where you can't continually say, we can't do anything there because they're too much of your budget.
MP: Other cities are cutting police and fire right now.
PI: For three years I have not. Now this year, we'll have to take a fresh look at it. It is going to be an ongoing struggle and I think it's wrong policy because people I think derive their best quality of life from the services that come from local government. And those are the very services that are in peril.
MP: There have been a few issues in the press in the last month about Tampa International Airport Executive Director Louis Miller, whom I know you've always said you have the highest regard for... Do you think Louis Miller has been doing too much on his own without consulting enough with the rest of the Aviation Authority?
PI: No, I think what's happening is that a new board member [Steve Burton] has come on who I think has been very disruptive. And well, I have to be diplomatic.
MP: No, you don't have to be —
PI: No, I do have to be diplomatic. However, I suspect that the overall agenda here is to ultimately drive a good solid honest independent person like Louis Miller out of the job — you know, someone who doesn't waste money, who doesn't go out and hire a lot of consultants, someone who doesn't cut deals with people... he's an independent agent. And my guess and prediction is that, once I leave the board, they'll probably make life miserable enough for our outstanding airport director and then, with a different board makeup, someone weaker and perhaps more malleable will be selected...
MP: What's the motivation to get him out?
PI: Well. Again, in my role as mayor it's not my place to ascribe publicly motivations to people, that's not a useful exercise, so I will not do that.
DW: I was at a meeting last night in Ybor organized by Urban Charrette and Artists and Writers Group. They're trying to apply urban planning methodology to the arts community — calling it a "geographically liberated neighborhood." One of the questions was for you, essentially: We see this great progress with the big guys. Are there any plans to help starving artists, artists who just need help to have a living wage? Are there any live/work spaces planned? What can be done to keep that kind of life blood of the arts community on some sort of support system?
PI: Well, here I've come to a conclusion, David, that one of the problems that we have in our society is too much government reliance for answers to all of those things. These types of communities have to grow up organically... Government doesn't create a neighborhood that's avant garde, people do that. I think this is going to change because government won't have any money anymore for decades to come... You look at all of our nonprofits. They are far too dependent on government — almost everyone except for the Straz Performing Arts Center, because they've actually built up an endowment. Even these nonprofits that have been around 20-30 years don't have endowments. The Tampa Bay History Center is an exception. They opened up with a $15 million endowment. Florida Aquarium, we paid the mortgage, we subsidize them. Tampa Museum of Art, we helped build the building, we subsidize them. You name them, we spend $17 million a year subsidizing arts organizations, more than any other city in the state of Florida. But it's still never enough... And I think that just like with anything, if you create a dependency, it is ultimately unhealthy in relationships and in anything else, and that's what I see has occurred. You know the only thing that keeps the Florida Orchestra from going under? The city of Tampa. We are the only government that supports it. The only one.
DW: Clearwater, St. Pete, nothing?
PI: Those were the first things to go in the first three years of their budget cuts. I'm the only government that hasn't. So we still give them $380,000 a year. They're not even in Tampa! Ok! So what's keeping the Florida Orchestra alive? Is that healthy? It's not healthy.
DW: When I came to town what struck me as a newcomer was that some people would refer to "the big vision" of [former Mayor] Dick Greco. You know, "There was a time when there was someone who had big ideas and knew how to make them happen," and there was some degree of disappointment that that era had passed. Now that some of [your] visions have come to realization, what do you say to that attitude? Do you still think that there's some truth in the distinctions between you and your predecessor?
PI: Well, I think there's just huge differences between Mayor Greco and myself. In style and substance and in vision. I mean, absolutely. I probably have bigger ideas. If you really look at it from a factual basis, this whole light rail is transformative for the entire region! You pull out the maps, you're talking about a whole different way to live and smart growth. So, and opening up the river to the people. I think I start with a concept. And-
DW: He starts with a building?
PI: And I think Mayor Greco started with a specific development proposal that somebody brought to him. You know, like someone came and said, "We would like to do Channelside." Someone came to him and said, "We would like to do Centro Ybor." Ok, that's great. As mayor, of course you react to people who come to you and say we want to do something... But I think it's a different kind of visioning when you start with an overall concept... more of "I'd like to see us re-engineer ourselves as a community with smart growth and with an emphasis on mass transit." That's not something that some developer brings to you, that's something you look at from a societal standpoint, from a holistic standpoint. Or you start by saying, "I think we ought to open up the riverfront to the people." That's an urban planning concept. So yes, there are huge difference between the two of us. I think I've started really big-picture concepts and then worked to make them become reality, and I think Mayor Greco, who has achieved a great deal, this is not criticism, this is just an analysis of two different ways of looking at things, I think he started from a "If you come to me with a good idea, I'll embrace it." Those are two different ways of looking at things.