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After years of strained relations, Hillsborough, Tampa leaders talk cooperation

“We will celebrate our diversity as a strength,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as he appeared before the commission Wednesday.


“We will celebrate our diversity as a strength,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as he appeared before the commission Wednesday.

TAMPA — Former Mayor Pam Iorio's posture seemed to change the few times she made it up the block for a Hillsborough County Commission meeting, so little did she like dealing with the board.

She had cordial relations with one or two commissioners. But interaction between the city and county was mostly an arm's-length transaction.

Hoping to chart a course of greater collaboration and respect, commission Chairman Al Higginbotham invited new Mayor Bob Buckhorn to County Center for a meet-and-greet Wednesday. They shared coffee and posed for photos, with Buckhorn standing before commissioners at the dais.

"You can see we're behind you," Higginbotham quipped.

For a day, at least, it was all hearts and hugs. Afterward, everyone expressed what they said is genuine hope for a future of warmer relations and more cooperation between two governments that have often acted like jealous cousins.

Circumstances may dictate as much, they said. Each government has seen major changes in its leadership, from the elected officials to the people paid to run their shops. And both are facing major budget challenges that should force them to do a better job of working together.

Buckhorn said he appreciated the gesture.

"The fact that you reached your hands across a block to us means a lot to me," he said.

Higginbotham said it was more than symbolic.

"When I think of our mayor, I think of something Winston Churchill said: And that is, a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity," Higginbotham said. "And an optimist sees opportunity at every difficulty.

Buckhorn isn't the only newcomer on the block. Three of the seven county commissioners took office only in November. And each of them formerly served in the state Legislature representing districts not tied to municipal boundaries.

Commissioners late last year officially hired Mike Merrill to replace fired County Administrator Pat Bean, who had a chilly relationship with Iorio. Filling out his administrative team, Merrill lured Bonnie Wise, a former city finance director, to a similar job at the county.

Shortly after welcoming Buckhorn, one of the new commissioners, Sandy Murman, won support for reviving a little-known body called the Council of Governments. Made up of representatives of the county and its three municipalities, it will be looking for ways to consolidate government operations.

"We've got to get our staffs of the local governments talking," Murman said. "This is the time to do it. None of our local governments have money."

Individual commissioners have for several years been pressing the county staff to explore ways to consolidate services, particularly between Hills­borough and Tampa. There has been plenty of finger-pointing as to why little of it has happened.

For one, commissioners don't always speak with one voice on the topic, and the discussion can turn parochial quickly. Commissioners serve a population that tends to be far more conservative than the one in Tampa.

So city officials have been reluctant in the past to talk about merging parks systems, for instance, with a county that has banned gay pride displays in its libraries. Residents of unincorporated areas often protest their tax dollars flowing into the city.

Personalities in each government have butted heads with their counterparts in ways that sometimes resemble an oil-and-water relationship.

Bean famously blocked Iorio from addressing city residents from the county's Emergency Operations Center during the 2004 hurricane season, saying that state law put the county administrator in charge. Later, commissioners resisted giving the city tourist tax money to fix a leaking roof at the Tampa Convention Center even as they doled out millions for the upkeep of three sports arenas.

"We've had board members who seemed to take every opportunity to poke at the city," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.

There have been minor examples of teamwork, such as a joint plan to buy new back-shop software systems. Their affordable housing operations collaborate. And the city contracts with the county for the use of its Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator.

Commissioners said Wednesday there is greater potential. A majority cited the parts of both governments that oversee purchasing, vehicle maintenance and, yes, parks as areas ripe for wholesale consolidation.

"From my standpoint, the timing is right," said Commissioner Victor Crist. "We've got a declining economy and we've got to do more with less."

He said he sees the cooperation going beyond mergers to greater collaboration on economic development, with the county doing better at promoting job creators and tourism boosters inside the city, such as MacDill Air Force Base and Ybor City.

Buckhorn said he believes the talk from the county is genuine, and welcomes it. Still, he expressed more modest goals of his own for collaboration.

He said he believes the county may be able to team up for certain types of purchases, such as cars, health insurance and building materials, to save money, but stopped short of advocating wholesale consolidation. He also said development rules could be made more similar to make them easier to navigate for people wanting to invest in the community.

The economy drives some of the necessity, but not all of it, Buckhorn said.

"I also think that voters expect us to work better together," he said. "These lines on a map are artificial boundaries. The average person on the street, they don't the difference between green street signs and blue street signs."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected]

After years of strained relations, Hillsborough, Tampa leaders talk cooperation 04/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 7:21am]
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