The divide between the resources Hillsborough County has available and its public service needs has created a welcome byproduct: There is new interest by local officials in collaborating to meet the challenges for the future. While much of the focus up to now has been on schools, this more united effort could improve public services, save taxpayers money and help protect the region’s natural resources.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Anastasia Dawson reported, Hillsborough County commissioners, school board members, and city council members from Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City came together for the first time in memory last month to discuss how planning by each government could impact school safety and public infrastructure. While County Commission Chairman Les Miller noted the effect a disjointed planning process could have on school placement and safety, the silo mentality by different local governments undermines growth management across the board, worsening the impact of sprawl and leading to costly, inefficient outlays for public services.
An outside planning consultant told the group that Hillsborough’s challenges are not unique; communities nationwide are spending more on transportation, housing and public services to keep up with the demands of growth. One way to maximize resources is to turn schools into social hubs for a community, co-locating facilities such as libraries or community health centers to provide residents more of a one-stop destination for public services. The idea is not new; city halls were designed on the same principle, providing a single place for residents to pay a water bill, file a complaint or meet with an elected official. The opportunity now is to bring services together across jurisdictional lines. Some builders incorporate schools, community centers, fire stations and other amenities within their own developments, reflecting the role that the private sector can play.
Local agencies in Hillsborough have built stronger relationships in recent years. County commissioners gave Sheriff Chad Chronister about $1 million in county funding annually, enabling Hillsborough to be the first county in the state to assign crossing guards at all middle schools. The county also responded after several incidents where students were struck and injured by motorists by funding new school safety projects. Hillsborough’s new transportation tax also lays a foundation for the county and its three cities to better integrate transportation planning among the various jurisdictions, and to create safer school environments with new money for road, intersection and sidewalk improvements.
There’s no reason this shared concern with schools cannot be applied to other essential public services. Officials elected to local office have distinct responsibilities and, in some cases, distinct constituencies. But local assets need to be seen in a larger scope. And local governments need to better appreciate the resources they can leverage - from publicly owned land to regulatory incentives - to get the most from their infrastructure budgets. Digital communications has pioneered this ground already, delivering a range of social services to one’s fingertips. Hillsborough should keep exploring ways that local governments can work together in advancing the common goal of maintaining a high quality of life.
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