TAMPA — At a time of government cutbacks, Hillsborough County commissioners approved a major building project Tuesday: construction of a $31.4 million emergency operations center.
County officials said that there are few things more basic that the public expects from government than responding to a natural disaster. And while the Tampa Bay region has been spared a direct hurricane hit for decades, the threat is annual and the potential for devastation is great.
"We've got to get ready," said Commissioner Les Miller, maneuvering to be the first to recommend approval of the project.
The vote was 6-1 with Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a leading advocate for a new center, absent. The meeting conflicted with the first day of a class he is teaching at the University of South Florida.
At 50,500 to 72,500 square feet, the new emergency operations center will nearly quadruple the size of the existing headquarters on East Hanna Avenue. It should open sometime in 2014.
The 20- to 30-acre campus will be built off of Columbus Drive between Falkenburg Road and U.S. 301. It will include central emergency operations, Fire-Rescue headquarters, dispatch, traffic management and critical information technology equipment. It also will be home to a new fire rescue training center, increasing its usefulness outside of hurricane season.
Unlike the current operations center, it will be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and would be at less risk from the water surge from major tropical storms. County officials say the current center, built 20 years ago, could face significant damage from a Category 3 storm or weaker.
At 18,000 square feet, it is also too small to accommodate emergency responders during a significant threat, officials said.
Emergency management director Preston Cook said after Tuesday's meeting that the cost of a new center, and one built to withstand an anomaly such as a Category 5 hurricane, is justified.
"This is not a facility you can take a chance on," he said. "This is a facility that is going to be responding to its citizens at their worst time. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."
Commissioners held the vote at the county's emergency operations center, with some touring the building and the board sitting through a hurricane threat simulation.
They watched two video screens broadcasting the buildup to a major storm, the pummeling winds and the aftermath. Officials from the county's emergency response system gathered in the standing-room-only command center and gave pretend assessments of power outages, failed sewage pump stations, downtown buildings destroyed and lives lost.
County Administrator Mike Merrill had previously proposed building a nearly $38 million operations center, which received criticism from some residents.
On Tuesday, Merrill's staff offered three options, from a base-model $28.2 million facility to a higher-end $37.4 million center. Commissioners accepted the midpriced option.
Sharon Subudan, a deputy to Merrill who oversees emergency operations, noted that the money won't be spent at one time. Rather, the county would in essence take out loans, like a mortgage, paying off construction costs with annual installments of $1.8 million for 30 years.
The project got an endorsement of sorts from state emergency management director, Bryan Koon, who attended the meeting as he tours the state to assess its vulnerabilities. Koon described the Tampa Bay region as a microcosm of the state's overall risk from hurricanes, with its large concentration of people near water, and said Hillsborough had probably outgrown its current emergency center.
"You've got all the things that keep me up at night in one area," he said. "Investment in emergency management … is one of those things that generates a huge rate of return long term."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.