TAMPA — When dozens of county officials from around Tampa Bay met Friday morning, the location — a conference room in Tampa International Airport’s SkyCenter One office building — was as symbolic as it was functional.
Sure, the airport was as close to a centralized location as the members of the Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county commissions were likely to agree on. But as several of them pointed out, it also represents a regional asset in an area where county governments have long been disjointed or even combative.
Case in point: Friday’s meeting was, as far as any of the officials in the room could tell, the first time that all three of the county commissions had met together. Several of them positioned the two-hour discussion as a much-needed step away from parochialism and toward a more regional, collaborative way of governance.
“Most of the citizens, they travel without political boundaries,” Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said. “They go from one county to the next, depending on which one’s better for their way of life.”
The meeting was years in the making. Administrators for the three counties put it together after they began meeting during the pandemic, Hillsborough administrator Bonnie Wise said. Dave Eggers, a Pinellas commissioner, said he’d been asking for such a meeting for at least five years.
Seventeen of the 19 commissioners across the three counties made the meeting. (Hillsborough’s Pat Kemp, who missed a budget workshop earlier this week with an illness, and Pasco’s Gary Bradford, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, were absent.)
In smaller groups, these officials sometimes serve together on regional agencies. Many on Friday praised the work of Tampa Bay Water, which emerged from the region’s water wars in the 1990s to control its water supply, as an example of regionalism at its best. Less discussed were the conflicts and failures of collaboration that have plagued Tampa Bay, such as the implosion of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority and the consternation over the division and remerging of a public job placement program.
Without anything for the gathered commissioners to take action on, Friday’s meeting stayed cordial. They heard a presentation on hurricane preparedness, which reiterated how devastating an Ian-like storm would be to Tampa Bay, and how the counties need to work together on evacuations, after a troublingly small number of residents evacuated ahead of Ian.
They also reviewed the Tampa Bay Partnership’s recent regional competitiveness report. It shows that the area — which the Partnership defines as eight counties, from Citrus to Sarasota — ranks at the top among comparable metro areas in drawing new residents. But the report said it lags far behind in many other categories, including wages, affordability, transportation and pedestrian and cyclist safety.
Transportation, which Pinellas Commission Chairperson Janet Long called the elephant in the room, is likely to be a major subject of discussion if the commissions do meet again, as members agreed to do as they ended Friday’s meeting. Will they move toward merging the counties’ individual planning agencies into one entity? Should they prioritize improving roads, as Hillsborough’s Michael Owen and Pasco’s Ron Oakley suggested, or working on regional mass transit?
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The specter of conflict among the three commissions emerged toward the end of the meeting. Recently elected Hillsborough Commissioner Joshua Wostal criticized the regional report, saying that “it’s extremely easy to lie with numbers” and that it’s “dangerous to compare us at all to Seattle,” which ranks at the top of several categories where Tampa Bay scored poorly.
“This could paint a doom-and-gloom scenario that doesn’t exist,” he said.
Pinellas Commissioner Rene Flowers noted that many grant applications require comparisons between metro areas, and she said Tampa Bay’s elected officials need to avoid getting hung up on small conflicts.
“That’s what seems to stop us every time,” she said. “We get stuck right here, where we’re not looking at a solution.”