TAMPA — Get ready for brighter skies in Tampa — digital billboards are on the way.
The City Council on Thursday gave preliminary approval to an ordinance allowing the electronic signs on highways and major roadways. A final vote is scheduled for May 20.
Council members also learned Thursday that the parks department will expand scholarships to help low-income families struggling to pay higher fees for summer and after-school programs.
The digital billboard ordinance received initial approval in a 5-2 vote, with council members Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Mulhern voting against it.
Council member John Dingfelder said he would prefer that the city not allow electronic billboards, which some say are a safety hazard to drivers and a nuisance to nearby residents.
But the city has been in a years-long legal battle with billboard giants Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, which want the right to erect the signs, and Dingfelder said this will end the litigation. The companies had originally hoped to put up a total of 36 signs in the city, but a compromise offered by Dingfelder allows them only six each.
Chairman Tom Scott agreed, saying the signs are a new technology that can't be ignored.
"Given the budgetary constraints we're in, I'd much rather those dollars go to children and to parks than give it to attorneys and courts," he said.
Mulhern and Saul-Sena, though, said they're rather wait to make a decision until federal authorities finish a study of the safety impact of the signs.
"We're always in litigation, John, as you know or you wouldn't have a job," Mulhern said, referring to his work as a lawyer. "That's not a good basis to make big policy decisions like this."
Mulhern also turned the heat on parks director Karen Palus after she told the council about her department's beefed-up scholarship opportunities.
Council members have been pressuring Palus to address complaints from low-income residents and senior citizens, who say higher park fees launched in October are pricing them out of programs they've depended on.
Palus said the staff has been successful in reaching out to those who have dropped out of the programs to let them know there is financial help available.
Still, Mulhern pressed her for details.
"You stood up here and told us last October that nobody would be turned away, and we made you say that a bunch of times. But that's not what happened with the after-school program. Now you're asking us to accept that this time it's going to be different," Mulhern said. "I'm not going to accept that unless you give us the numbers."
As evidence of the department's success, Palus said more than 950 students have preregistered so far for summer camps, a higher figure than ever before.
Last year, more than 2,700 students participated in the programs, she said.
Mulhern said that information is irrelevant until they see exactly how many people sign up for the summer camps.
The council voted to amend the parks ordinance to include guidelines for scholarships and require progress reports.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.