TAMPA — The question of whether New Tampa should ever consider seceding from the rest of the city to get more of its taxes back animated a debate Wednesday night in the City Council runoff between Jim Davison and Luis Viera.
Maybe, said Davison, though he didn't say he's for the idea. At a minimum, he said, New Tampa should not give up its leverage by saying it would never think about pulling out of the city.
No, said Viera, who called the idea adversarial, nonproductive and a non-starter.
The question, as framed by debate moderator Mark Sharpe, a former county commissioner and executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, touched on a theme that's been in the background of the special election that north and New Tampa voters will decide Tuesday.
It's the perception, not uncommon in City Council candidate debates during any election cycle, that City Hall takes a disproportionate share of tax money from Tampa's neighborhoods and uses it downtown.
In fact, neither the question nor the candidates addressed where most property taxes paid by Tampa residents do go. It's not to downtown — or more specifically, to downtown projects. Rather, it's to public safety. Property taxes citywide are projected to raise a total of $153 million in 2017. But it will cost $240 million just to run the Police Department and Tampa Fire Rescue.
Still, that didn't prevent Davison and Viera from exchanging some pointed criticisms on the idea and each other during a debate in front of Forest Hills residents at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course clubhouse.
Sixteen years ago, Davison said, New Tampa residents talked about this once before.
"We were not getting our fair share," he said. "As soon as we started talking about secession, and we starting organizing ourselves in the New Tampa Transportation Task Force and the New Tampa Community Council, all of a sudden we started getting road improvements, money for recreation. ...
"You never want to give away any leverage that you have in any negotiations," he said. "I'm not alienating anybody. What I'm doing is expressing a frustration that people in Forest Hills feel, that people in Compton Park feel, that people in New Tampa feel."
In dismissing that position as unrealistic and unnecessarily antagonistic, Viera said, "Next thing you know, we're going to hear Jim say, 'I'm going to build a wall and make South Tampa pay for it.'
"That's one of those issues that we have got to be diplomatic and be resolute on," he said.
"That was uncalled for," Davison responded. "You were trying to compare me to (president-elect) Donald Trump. What the (moderator) said before about how this was a nice, congenial campaign, you just destroyed it. I am not Donald Trump."
Davison and Viera made Tuesday's runoff after finishing first and second in a six-candidate field on Nov. 8.
They are vying to replace Lisa Montelione in the council's seat for District 7, which represents areas of northern Tampa like Forest Hills and Temple Crest as well as New Tampa's gated communities of Tampa Palms, Hunter's Green, Cory Lake Isles and West Meadows.
Viera, 38, is an attorney who has served on the city's Civil Service Board. Davison, 62, is an emergency room doctor who has been involved in transportation issues in New Tampa since the 1990s. Both live in Hunter's Green.
Viera said he supported creating a community redevelopment area for the area around the University of South Florida, pursuing the development of mass transit and cultivating apprenticeship programs through city contracting.
Davison said officials need to think more about profound societal changes that will be ushered in by the development of autonomous vehicles and increased digitalization and automation. He said USF should create a new school just in those areas. And he said the city needs mass transit, but the city should scrutinize its own budget for revenues — especially those generated by future growth — to help meet those needs.
Early voting starts today and continues daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday at four locations:
• Fred B. Karl County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd.
• New Tampa Regional Library, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd.
• North Tampa Branch Library, 8916 North Blvd.
• Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N Falkenburg Road.
As of Wednesday night, voters had already sent in more than 3,200 vote-by-mail ballots, pushing turnout so far to about 6 percent.