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Despite budget cuts, Hillsborough administrator wants new emergency center

TAMPA — Hillsborough County government is cutting employees again and expects to scale back road building and parks operations.

But County Administrator Mike Merrill has found room in his proposed budget for a new, $37.4 million, 100,000-square-foot emergency operations center to replace the county's East Hanna Avenue complex.

Merrill says in a proposal released earlier this month that the old center is too cramped and not designed to withstand a common emergency in Florida: hurricanes.

"This is the one facility we must be able to rely on before, during and after a natural or man-made disaster to keep our residents safe and to direct recovery and rebuilding operations," Merrill wrote.

At least one commissioner is questioning the need for the expenditure as the county grapples with declining tax revenues that are forcing cutbacks elsewhere. Merrill's budget recommendation includes roughly $40 million in operational cuts and postpones as much as $127 million in construction projects, much of it road work.

"Whew," said Commissioner Victor Crist, after hearing during a budget session last week that the new building would be more than three times the size of the county's current 30,000-square-foot building.

"From a timing standpoint, you know, in shutting down services, dealing with kids and, you know, in day care after school, and roads that need to be done and intersections that need to be cared for," Crist said, "I mean, this is a great, you know, want, but is it a must-have at this particular time?"

Merrill said that it is a need, and that the center will serve as a base of operations for the county's fire and rescue operations, its traffic management office and code enforcement. Importantly, it also would serve as a training center and house the county's technology backup system, now located at County Center, which could be cut off by storm surge from even a middling hurricane.

In other words, the building will be actively used year-round, rather than just during storms.

Merrill's budget message indicates his staff is looking at a location on Columbus Drive between Falkenburg Road and U.S. 301 that the county already owns. The property is near other county operations that could be important during a disaster, including water and wastewater, solid waste, jails and animal services.

He told commissioners last week that if they think the plan is too extravagant, the county could build it in stages.

Mark Sharpe, who has long championed the need for a new emergency operations center, said he nevertheless wants to make sure what is built is a responsible use of tax dollars.

"I believe in my heart that this is one of the central functions of government," Sharpe said.

"But we need to figure out what we need, then not spend a penny more than what we need to build it."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Despite budget cuts, Hillsborough administrator wants new emergency center 06/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:42pm]
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