The crowded suburbs of Brandon and Town 'N Country might seem like reasonable possibilities in Hillsborough County to convert from unincorporated communities into their own cities. But the rural area of Keystone? The talk of transforming Keystone into a city reflects the tug and pull of a conversation that centers on home rule and cultural diversity as much as the county's growth and finances. Wherever this discussion leads, it will test Hillsborough's identity and its role in the region.
The Tampa Bay Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported on a move by residents in the rural enclave of Keystone to consider incorporation. Such a step may make sense for some fast-growing suburbs, as residents look for more responsive ways to handle typical urban needs, from the demand for police and fire protection to water and sewer service. But this pastoral community of about 15,000 people is exploring a pre-emptive strike, examining whether city status would better protect this corner in northwest Hillsborough from encroaching development. It's a bold idea in an unlikely place, and it reflects a loss of confidence in elected county commissioners to protect Keystone's quality of life.
Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White wants to explore the creation of municipal overlay districts, which would act as pathways for unincorporated areas that want to consider incorporating. Any change in government would have to be approved by the state and by a voter referendum. But White's proposal would ease the process by helping communities weigh the costs and the pros and cons. Would residents pay higher taxes by incorporating? Receive better public services? Or carve out more money for distinct local needs, such as improved police or fire protection?
White's proposal is a good starting point that will guide this discussion in an orderly manner. It will highlight the challenges Hillsborough faces in providing urban services to 900,000 people in the unincorporated area. With the county's overall population expected to reach 2.2 million by 2040, Hillsborough faces a long list of big-ticket needs, from an improved mass transit system to more parks, senior centers and fire stations. If anyone wants to know where growth is headed, look at the Hillsborough school system; over the next 15 years, 31 of the 38 new schools it will need are expected in south county, far from the urban core of Tampa.
The pressures fueling the incorporation movement are from different directions — efforts to preserve rural life in small communities such as Keystone and to provide more services in already congested areas such as Brandon — will only become stronger. Older, congested suburbs may see city government as more attuned to their needs, while rural areas may view incorporation as a tool to control their destiny. Though the motivations are different, the debate will certainly be inward-looking, as communities weigh what's best for themselves. That will detract from any countywide vision for job development, mass transit or other major initiative, and it could spark if not outright reward a surge in parochialism and undermine Hillsborough's role as regional leader. County officials need to move carefully, and to see this interest in city government as a call for county government to be more engaged. Hillsborough is growing, and not all perfectly, and it's beyond time to address the challenges that are becoming so costly and divisive.