Town hall meetings are all the rage this days, with the operative word, in too many cases, being rage. Constituents are demanding answers from their representatives, especially regarding healthcare issues, and the disruptions and anger make national news on a seemingly weekly basis.
A New Tampa town hall, organized by District 7 City Councilman Luis Viera and held June 5 at the New Tampa Recreation Center, however, couldn’t have gone any smoother.
“It really shows that people are engaged,’’ Viera said. “The next one we have will probably be even bigger.”
Here are five takeaways:
1. This Was A Good Idea
If you’ve ever wondered what is really bothering people in New Tampa, the town hall, which attracted roughly 75 local residents, including many of the area’s Homeowner’s Association presidents, was a good place to find out.
Outside of the usual complaints about taxes and transportation, those who attended raised a number of issues like trash on Cross Creek Blvd, local commercial buildings looking run down, bank foreclosed property causing a blight in otherwise well-kept neighborhoods and even concerns about the ability of ethnic minorities to worship safely.
This is exactly what Viera says he had hoped for when he scheduled the event. With code enforcement inspector Fred George and Tampa Police Department District 2 shift commander Kevin Schoolmeesters in attendance, some of the simpler questions raised will undoubtedly be answered. Most important, Viera said, was that a majority of those who raised concerns seemed to be satisfied with the answers.
For the bigger, more complicated issues, like transportation and the city budget, it was a step in the direction of creating a unified front when it comes to lobbying city hall for changes. Viera has already formed the New Tampa Council with this idea in mind.
“We need a collective and unified voice,’’ Viera said.
Although Mayor Bob Buckhorn couldn’t make it, his chief of staff, Dennis Rogero, did attend. And, while he didn’t really have any concrete answers for those asking questions, he was certainly enlightening and honest, even if it meant telling people things they didn’t want to hear.
More on that later.
2. The Big Issue
To quote Bob Parker of Heritage Isles, the biggest issue in New Tampa is “transportation, transportation, transportation.”
While Pasco and Hillsborough counties remain at loggerheads over connecting the two at various points between Meadow Pointe and the K-Bar Ranch, traffic is a real concern for local residents along Cross Creek Blvd.
The City Council recently okayed plans for 400 more homes to be built by M/I Homes in the K-Bar Ranch area. “You should be ashamed,’’ Parker scolded, considering there’s only two two-lane roads in and out of the area.
“I feel like I live on an island,’’ Parker added, “and there are two causeways, Bruce B. Downs (BBD) and Morris Bridge Rd.”
That lack of options is preventing people from getting to hospitals, and making the long drives to work in Tampa unbearable. “It’s killing New Tampa,’’ he said.
Rogero said the city is well aware of the issue. “You are right, you might as well live on an ocean,’’ Rogero said. “We hear the horror stories. That’s one of the reasons I live in South Tampa. We looked here. It’s beautiful up here. But, I didn’t want to add a couple of hours in commute time to my schedule.”
That might be unsettling — to hear the mayor’s Chief of Staff confess to avoiding our area because of the traffic — but Rogero was honest and admitted he didn’t have any answers.
One that should sound good to residents of Cross Creek “Island,” is a third left-hand turn signal onto Bruce B. Downs at the very busy intersection that Viera said he will propose.
Another possibility that was raised: Putting the controversial East-West Connector back in the MPO.
Jim Davison, who narrowly lost to Viera in the City Council runoff in December, applauded his former opponent for the town hall and the New Tampa Council, and suggested a second town hall, perhaps with a more narrow focus on one topic, like transportation.
Viera said he hopes to hold another one in December.
3. Getting The Short Shrift
Rogero got an earful from local attorney Tracy Falkowitz, who lives in Tampa Palms, about the plight of the New Tampa Rec Center.
For the second time in five years last year, the City Council voted to provide funds for a different project – the Cuscaden Park pool in Ybor City – instead of the rec center, even though a $1.5-million, 14,000-sq.ft. expansion of the facility was originally included in recent budget drafts.
Despite spending $3.2 million on renovating the Cuscaden Park pool and re-opening it last August, it was closed again in April for more repairs. It has since re-opened.
“This area has been short-shrifted every year,’’ Falkowitz said. “That money needs to come back. This amazing facility does so much with so little. We want our expansion. Every year that money allocated for here gets sent somewhere else, and it’s my understanding that this year it’s not even included in the budget.
She added, “It constantly sends the message: New Tampa, just send us your money, then sit down and shut up. That’s what we’re all being told. So as the budget guy, what are you doing to make sure the community gets what it deserves and was supposed to be given to us six years ago.” That statement drew the night’s loudest round of applause.
Rogero said, however, that it is a misconception that what an area pays in property taxes, it will get back in enhancements. It is a misconception, in fact, shared by quite a few residents.
“We allocate one big pot of general funding for the priorities of the city, city-wide,’’ Rogero said. “We don’t necessarily try to return dollar for dollar to any particular area. That’s simply not the way property taxation is set up.”
Rogero admitted that there is a need in New Tampa for the expansion — the dance and gymnastics programs have roughly 800 students and the waiting list’s cup runneth over — but as each priority is paid off, “by the time we get to the New Tampa Rec Center on the list, we’re out of money.”
Viera said he wasn’t surprised at all that people remain angry about the rec center. “It’s the reason we held the town hall there,’’ he said. “I think it’s symbolic.”
4. Did Someone Say Secession?
Falkowitz ended her comments by mentioning that instances like the rec center expansion being cut out of the budget is why the subject of New Tampa de-annexing from the City of Tampa came up in the last election (and continues to come up). “What would the city do without the funds from (New Tampa),’’ Falkowitz said, which got at least two people in attendance to clap. “We are very, very unhappy with how we have been treated by city of Tampa.’’
“From the city’s perspective,” Rogero replied, “we don’t feel that we’re mistreating New Tampa.’’
There were a few people in the room who didn’t agree with Rogero, including former City Councilman Joseph Caetano, a longtime proponent of New Tampa’s secession.
Viera is strongly opposed to the idea. “I’ve never thought that was a good idea,’’ he said, adding that if people knew what that entailed, they would be opposed, too.
5. Organize & Be Heard
Brad Van Rooyen, who is on the New Tampa Council, and Davison asked a simple question in regards to tax monies – how can New Tampa get the city to pay attention to its needs and to increases services to the area.
“I have to tell you, it could be that some of you have shown up to the budget meetings, but I can guarantee all of you haven’t,’’ Rogero said, “because there’s typically less than a dozen people there. I appreciate your emails, and your phone calls, but when it’s a billion-dollar budget and another half billion of capital improvement projects, your city council is looking at an empty room. I can’t tell you what prioritization comes to their minds. I can almost guarantee you, though, it won’t be yours.”
Talk of taxes, transportation, budgets and secession aside, most in attendance seemed to be looking for answers to simple problems, like beautifying Bruce B. Downs – Viera is already talking to officials about getting mowers out to New Tampa more frequently — and local commercial buildings and taking care of bank-foreclosed homes.
George, who admits his code enforcement department is understaffed, encouraged people to call in complaints to (813)-274-5545, because he can’t see everything.
Others remain concerned about the county’s plans to stop courtesy buses for students who live within two miles of their school, which will result in students having to cross over BBD by foot. (Walking pedestrian bridge, anyone?)
Residents seemed pleased with the TPD, and were complimentary about the service they receive, like the visits you can get from officers when you are on vacation just by calling (813) 931-6500. And code enforcement and police requests while on vacation can also be filed via TampaGov.net, the city’s website.