TAMPA — Last week, a fire fighter union official made an emotional plea: for more fire stations to reduce response times and new computer software to help fire trucks, worn down by overuse, to arrive at emergencies.
It’s an old tune at City Hall. The belt tightened during the Great Recession for city services and never loosened as the city’s economic pulse quickened, prompting increasing calls for more investment in the nuts and bolts of emergency response: stations, vehicles and personnel.
Amid a discussion of fire and police needs last week, City Council member John Dingfelder offered a potentially explosive solution: make developers help pay for police and fire capital needs.
Impact fees have been put in place by local governments around the state to help pay for infrastructure needs for everything from sewer lines to parks. Hillsborough County Commissioners increased transportation and recreation fees last week.
But developers say raising costs on construction will only inflate real estate prices, a sensitive subject in a city beset by rising unaffordability for its non-affluent residents and where land prices are skyrocketing.
Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, said it’s becoming typical for local governments to look to developers to bail them out of years of their own legislative lack of initiative to plan and save for the big ticket infrastructure items.
“Why do local governments wait until there’s a fire before calling the fire department?” she said.
To Dingfelder, making developers help with infrastructure makes sense.
“It’s a shame we didn’t do this a few years ago,” Dingfelder said Monday. “We could have benefited from all the the building boom over the last few years.”
Dingfelder said he texted Chief Financial Officer Dennis Rogero during Thursday’s meeting to ask if the city had ever explored whether it was possible to create impact fees for police and fire service. The city had not, Rogero texted back.
Now, it will. Council members unanimously approved Dingfelder’s request for city staff to report back on the feasibility of impact fees on May 6.
Few are likely to argue the city doesn’t need another fire station for a downtown that has gained thousands of residents in recent years. Or more coverage on the city’s north side, where a shuttered station in Sulphur Springs is being eyed as a possible reopening. And Rogero said vehicle costs for the fire department in coming years could total tens of millions.
Fire Union president Joe Greco gave an emotional 15-minute plea for action. It was a repeat performance for Greco who has been advocating for more vehicles, personnel and fire stations for years.
“We’ve got to hire people. We’ve got to build some fire stations. I’m done talking about it,” Greco said at the meeting.
Council chairman Guido Maniscalco didn’t need to be convinced. The city is growing so fast, “how do we keep up?” he asked Thursday.
“It’s a significant public health crisis,” Maniscalco said.
Council member Orlando Gudes, a retired police officer, whose district includes booming parts of West Tampa, downtown and Ybor City, said he wants more information about impact fees, but is intrigued.
As Tampa grows, “the city shouldn’t be paying for it all,” Gudes said Monday.
Gudes said he’d reserve his opinion on impact fees until he sees what Mayor Jane Castor’s administration brings to the May meeting.
For now, Castor isn’t showing her cards.
Asked for comment, the mayor deferred to her staff, which sent a statement Monday: “Council made a motion and now our staff is gathering the necessary data and conducting an extensive analysis in order to respond to Council’s request for information.”