Since it opened in 2002, Tampa Fire Rescue Station No. 21 on Cross Creek Blvd. has not only serviced City of Tampa residents in New Tampa, but has also been contracted to respond to the homes in the New Tampa communities located in unincorporated Hillsborough County. That city-county agreement, however, is in peril.
While it may not be time to call 9-1-1 on the negotiations just yet, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says that unless the county bridges the gap between what it has been paying and what the city thinks the county should be paying, Fire Station 21 — located on Cross Creek Blvd. just west of Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. — will no longer respond to calls from residents in Pebble Creek, Live Oak, Cross Creek and the other communities located in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
“Effective Dec. 31, if some accomodation is not reached, the city is not going to be providing service to Pebble Creek anymore,’’ Buckhorn told the Neighborhood News on Sept. 29.
The county is paying the city $218,000 a year, plus any adjustments related to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), to service unincorporated New Tampa,
Buckhorn says that total should be closer to $1.46 million.
“We have told the county, ‘Look, we are not doing this anymore’,” Buckhorn says. “You can pay us what we think we are owed and deserve, or you can go provide the service yourself or contract with Pasco County. We don’t care (which one). We’re happy to be here for you, but we’re going to do it at a rate that compensates us appropriately.”
Without a contract with the city, Hillsborough has limited options. One, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones, would be to stand up some kind of a response unit in the area. Another would be to contract with Pasco County, whose nearest fire rescue station is No. 26 in front of the Meadow Pointe I community in Wesley Chapel, about six miles away from the easternmost part unicorporated New Tampa.
The nearest Hillsborough County fire rescue station is No. 5 on E. 139th Ave. in the University area.
The best option, according to Chief Jones, is reaching some agreement with the city. However, it is requesting that the county to pay 40 percent of the annual costs to operate Station 21, City of Tampa chief financial officer Sonya Little wrote in a letter to Hillsborough County chief financial administrator Bonnie Wise.
According to the letter, Tampa has calculated the annual operating costs of Fire Station 21 at $3,652,432, and 40 percent of that number is $1,406,973.
“In these tight budget times, we’re looking at every agreement we have and making sure we are being fairly and adequately compensated,” Buckhorn says, “and this is one that is so glaring and so out of line, we just said enough.”
Jones said the county found the $1.4 million figure “shocking.” According to numbers he says are from the city, less than two calls a day to unincorporated New Tampa are handled by Fire Station 21, or approximately 40 minutes a day (or 2.78 percent) of service.
“We thought that was a little bit of a jump without some rationale behind it,’’ Jones said. “We measured calls and amount of time, and it’s a very small number for us to pay that amount of money.”
Buckhorn doesn’t agree, however.
“The frequency of the runs have increased significantly,” Buckhorn said. “We calculated down to the man hour, down to the cost of the vehicle, to be 40 percent of our time up there out of Station 21.”
Jones says the City of Tampa is seeking money for everything from the cost of the building to vehicle depreciation to uniforms.
“Basically all the costs to run the fire station,’’ he said.
The county, however, is arguing that many of the costs the city wants to reimbursed for have nothing to do with the contracted services provided. Jones said the county is more than willing to make up for any CPIs that may have been missed in the past, and to pay its share of the operating costs of the fire vehicles used, as well as the materials and supplies associated with the calls to unincorporated New Tampa.
But the city, Jones says, built the fire station for the residents of New Tampa, not to accommodate any contract with the county. It owns the station, and the land it’s on, and Jones doesn’t think costs associated with that should be passed on to the county.
Buckhorn said the agreement between the city and county (which dates back to 1998) has long been an issue downtown, when some of the county’s players involved in negotiations worked for the city. Wise was former mayor Pam Iorio’s chief financial officer for eight years before joining the county in 2011, and Jones was the Tampa Fire Chief before retiring in 2010. He was lured out of retirement in 2015 by the county.
“The two of them well aware of the longstanding inadeuqacies of it,” Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn said Jones complained about the agreement before retiring. Jones says he doesn’t recall ever having that conversation with Buckhorn when he was mayor, or before that when Buckhorn served as a city council member.
Both sides will continue to negotiate. The interlocal agreement they renewed in 2013 states that either party can terminate the agreement upon 90 days notice, which would mean Buckhorn would have had to exercise the option on Oct. 1 to meet his Dec. 31 cutoff date.
According to Buckhorn, the county has offered to pay an additional $40,000, which he said was “pretty much insulting.”
Jones said the county has offered to pay $56,000 more, as well as an additional $32,500 yearly for expendables. Even using Jones’ numbers, the difference between the city and county is still roughly $1.3 million.
“It’s a huge gap,” Jones said. “Is there a meeting place? I would hope there is. I’m confident we’ll come up with a resolution.”