Bob Buckhorn unveils 'Autism Friendly Tampa' initiative in state of the city speech

Tampa's mayor addresses the state of the city.

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TAMPA — Democrat Bob Buckhorn has dropped the idea of running for governor, but that didn't stop him from taking shots Tuesday at the Republican-led Florida Legislature and President Donald Trump in his annual state of the city speech.

Tampa lives under looming uncertainty, the mayor said, because Congress could take away revenues, eviscerate partnerships and decimate programs important to the city. Meanwhile, he said, the Legislature has opened an "unprecedented attack" on the city's ability to govern itself.

"They can issue all the executive orders in Washington, D.C., they want, but they can't extinguish our hope," Buckhorn told a crowd of more than 500 people at Kiley Garden. "They can do damage in Tallahassee, but they're not going to deny our future."

But mostly, Buckhorn emphasized that Tampa's strength comes from its people rising above distinctions of race, faith, sexual orientation, age or class.

"We are joined together by a belief that we are better together, that we are stronger together and that we will prosper together," he said.

To the list of people the city needs to make sure feel included, Buckhorn added children with autism. And for the families of those kids, he announced a new initiative, called "Autism Friendly Tampa."

Noting that one in 68 people is somehow affected by autism, Buckhorn said he has come to recognize that for those families, what would otherwise be a simple trip to the pool can be complicated. Finding a summer program can be virtually impossible.

So City Hall will work with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to give residents with autism the same experience that the rest of the city has — "more fun, more friends and more acceptance."

That means training city staff, starting with police, fire rescue and parks and recreation personnel. The city also will develop a resource guide to autism-friendly and accessible programs, places and events. And it will put up signs at parks establishing designated quiet spaces.

The USF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities has worked for seven years to bring such programs to bay area businesses, hospitals and other organizations.

"We think this is going to now just sort of scale up and become a much bigger project for us, but we're ready to do that," said Karen Berkman, the center's executive director. Locally, she said, autism could affect as many as 40,000 families.

While Buckhorn did talk about city highlights — including the $11 billion in projects permitted over the past six years, the 24 percent drop in crime in East Tampa and the testing of autonomous vehicles here — he did not mention two other big regional topics: transportation and the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Not talking about the search for a Rays stadium site isn't unusual for a Buckhorn state of the city speech. In the past, he typically has brought it up for laughs, often by playing on the latent rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

But Buckhorn has talked about transportation in the past, and has said forcefully a couple of times that the region needs to move forward with rail — with or without Tallahassee's support.

Not this year.

On Tuesday, Buckhorn scarcely used the words "transit" and "transportation," and then only in reference to existing programs. He didn't mention "rail," "referendum" or "sales tax" at all.

Afterward, Buckhorn said he is committed to improving transportation — just Monday he told a business group that it's "our Achilles' heel" — but "it's not within the realm of possibilities within the next year or two."

In the meantime, he said, the city is moving forward with a study of how to expand and update the TECO Line Streetcar, which Buckhorn said would probably be the first leg of any rail system.

And while Buckhorn said he has "beat my head against the wall" on mass transit in the past, for now, "I've got a lot of other good things to talk about and challenges ahead that rival or surpass rail."

   
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