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Grandstanding in Tampa

Leave it to Tampa City Council to put politics before common sense and good government. The way council members talk, one would think that the additional $1.7-million they want to spend on extra firefighters and equipment fell out of the sky. Actually, most of it comes from the city's painfully inadequate contingency fund.

The city's fire chief has told the council he doesn't need the extra money. But council members say they know better. The city's auditors have told council members that they are putting the city in a dangerous position should an emergency arise. But council members have ignored their warnings. Presumably they are smarter than the experts.

Some council members _ in particular Ronnie Mason, a virtual shop steward for the politically powerful firefighters union _ would have city residents believe that Mayor Sandy Freedman's veto of the allocation means she is more concerned about re-election than the public safety. (Note that Mason is also up for re-election in the spring.)

The mayor's judgment is backed by facts. For the past two years, response times for fire and rescue units have met the city's standard. Tampa's paramedic units handled 34,747 calls last year, yet only 16 times did they require assistance from other jurisdictions. Between 8,000 and 10,000 of those calls were non-emergencies that could have been handled by private ambulance services. In the future they will be, thanks to a new agreement the city has forged with those companies.

What Tampa does need is a larger contingency fund. The city has spent four years building the fund to $4-million. That's only 3 percent of the its total budget. Yet auditors say the city should reserve at least 10 to 15 percent in contingencies to cover emergencies or a sudden drop in the economy. If the council gets its way, instead of increasing, the contingency fund will drop by nearly half.

Said mayoral hopeful Larry Smith in response to Freedman's veto: "As usual, she's being short-sighted . . . I see a very clear need for these firefighters. The Fire Department is stressed."

That's not what Fire Chief William Austin and the statistics say. They clearly indicate that, all grandstanding aside, it's the council that's being short-sighted.