Florida cities rebounding from recession and housing slump

After a period of stagnation, people are moving into Florida cities. Municipal budgets—dependent on property taxes, state aid and local fees—have begun to stabilize.

Many cities are adding not laying off police officers and fire fighters. Most cities now have formal economic development programs to encourage business growth and job creation.

These are some of the encouraging conclusions from the new State of the Cities report from the Florida League of Cities.

The view from city halls across the state is definitely improving following the housing slump and recession that hit Florida hard. Florida cities are beginning to rebound. This is encouraging news, because thriving cities are essential to nearby communities and the entire state.

The league conducts an annual survey of municipal officials and compiles their responses in a CityStats database. The survey includes about 40 questions on municipal operations, budgets, policies and services. For 2013, the results indicate a definite turnaround.

The survey shows that population has increased significantly in cities such as Tampa and St. Petersburg and just slightly in Clearwater. Numbers of municipal employees have leveled off after a period of cutbacks, and city budgets are increasing about two to three percent per year.

Enormous pension obligation for government employees still is a problem in many cities. The Florida League of Cities, in a separate publication, promotes pension reform stories from cities around the state. Clearwater is one that has put its municipal pension program on a solid financial footing through negotiations with employees and a 2012 voter referendum.

Though cities everywhere struggle with social, financial and economic problems, the momentum for Florida cities clearly is in a positive direction.

This is an important development, because declining cities can drag down surrounding areas, even an entire state. People start to move away, taxable property values decline, property tax rates go up and essential service deteriorate.

This drives more people away and the cycle worsens. Eventually, the state has to step in to assure public safety and public education.

It is a disturbing trend in many U.S. cities. Once they begin to decline, it is hard to reverse direction and find new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate a troubled city.

Why do cities matter? Not everyone chooses to live in a city. Some people who grew up in a city move to quiet suburbs. But others seek the energy and nightlife of a city.

Even for those who live outside a city, the city itself is vital to surrounding communities. Cities often are the center of Jobs, creativity, social life, education, healthcare, entertainment and much more. Cities attract young people, who bring new life and energy to communities and keep them alive.

Without vibrant cities as central hubs, without dynamic growth and commercial activity, a county or state can lose its vitality and its attractiveness for future generations.

For Florida cities, large and small, the outlook seems to be brightening. With only some hyperbole, Florida League of Cities President P.C. Wu, said, “Florida boasts some of the best cities in the nation and it should come as no surprise that our state has rebounded so effectively after the difficulties of recent economic challenges.”

— Joseph Santangelo is a former reporter for the Bergen Record newspaper in New Jersey. He has written for magazines in Connecticut and Massachusetts and worked in business, government and community service. He writes from Clearwater.

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