Is Tampa lagging behind St. Pete in tackling the effects of climate change?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been criticized by environmental activists for dragging his feet on climate change, but officials say the political climate is more challenging in Hillsborough County.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been criticized by environmental activists for dragging his feet on climate change, but officials say the political climate is more challenging in Hillsborough County. [Times files]
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been criticized by environmental activists for dragging his feet on climate change, but officials say the political climate is more challenging in Hillsborough County. [Times files]
Published January 7

St. Petersburg is at the forefront of the climate change discussion in Tampa Bay and its profile just keeps rising.

The city began drawing up formal plans for how to combat climate change more than two years ago. It was the first Florida city to sign a pledge to convert to 100 percent renewable energy. And last week, the state’s fifth-largest city received a $2.5 million award from former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s foundation to further those efforts.

While St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is reaping accolades for his leadership, Tampa — the bay area’s largest city — hasn’t been as proactive, say some environmental activists.

After almost eight years in office, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s record on climate change falls short, they say.

“It really is a tale of two cities in some ways,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Not that Buckhorn doesn’t care about the environment. But he did not take on the issue of climate change and renewable energy as some other mayors did.”

Phil Compton, the Sierra Club’s senior organizing representative for the group’s state office, was more blunt.

“It’s not on his to-do list,” he said. When Compton attempted to get Buckhorn to join Orlando, Sarasota and St. Petersburg in pledging to convert completely to renewable energy by 2050, he couldn’t get a meeting.

“Bob wouldn’t even talk to us,” Compton said

The mayor subsequently met with local Sierra Club chapter chairman Kent Bailey about the issue, said Buckhorn spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.

Buckhorn’s office asked the Tampa Bay Times to email questions about his administration’s efforts regarding climate change. Bauman then issued the following statement:

“This is not a competition for the affection of paid special interests. Each community is different and have different needs and aspirations. In Tampa, we have let our actions speak louder than our words.”

She cited as examples the hundreds of millions spent by the city in recent years to make its stormwater system more resilient and better able to handle rising seas and the purchase of new garbage trucks powered by natural gas and electric charging stations.

St. Petersburg’s environmental record hasn’t been spotless. The city agreed to a state consent order in 2017 after illegally discharging about a billion gallons of sewage and reclaimed water in 2015-16 that mandates $326 million in sewer fixes, a record that Bloomberg said he was unaware of.

Part of the answer for the difference in climate change discussions in Tampa and St. Petersburg can be found in their very different political climates and structures, said Beth Alden, executive director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Tampa’s climate change planning is often done in partnership with countywide planning organizations, which sometimes gets missed in media coverage. And Hillsborough County has the largest unincorporated population of any metro area in the country, which means the County Commission usually takes the lead on issues such as climate change.

Until November, that commission was Republican-controlled, which encouraged work on resiliency projects without linking them publicly to climate change.

“In other metro areas, the large central city would be the entity that probably carries the most weight. That’s not true here. Here the conversation is very much dominated by the county government,” Alden said. “That’s the challenge for Tampa. It’s competing in this political environment where the big dog, the big city, is the county commission.”

City and county planners received a national planning award recently for their efforts to prevent flooding, including flooding caused by sea-level rise, said Allison Yeh, the MPO’s executive planner and sustainability coordinator.

“There is a coordination going on and has been, but there just hasn’t been an effort to publicize it,” Yeh said.

Tampa, the state’s third-largest city, developed a sustainability plan in 2011, which set the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2025. The city hasn’t done a study yet to see how much it has reduced its carbon footprint, said Thomas Snelling, the city’s director for planning and development.

“It’s something we need to do,” he said.

Other parts of that plan are being updated and should be available online by Feb. 1, Snelling said.

Compton, the Sierra Club organizer, said the lack of visibility regarding Tampa’s efforts is its own kind of message.

“I couldn’t tell you what actions the city of Tampa under Mayor Buckhorn has taken to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.

City Council members held a workshop on the issue in November at the prompting of council member Harry Cohen, who organized a similar discussion last year.

Cohen noted that Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, has said it will incorporate cities’ efforts to tackle climate change in its municipal ratings.

“We’re either to pay on the front end or pay on the back end,” Cohen, who is running for mayor, said at the Nov. 29 meeting.

Mike Suarez, another council member running for mayor, said the city needed to do a better job educating the public about what it’s doing, starting with an intuitive online presence.

“There’s a lot more that can be done,” he said at the meeting.

Glickman, the environmental activist, praised Buckhorn for recently signing on to the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, a new effort to create regional planning efforts and boost competitiveness for grants. She called it a “good step forward.”

With Buckhorn, who is term limited, leaving office on May 1, the next mayor needs to quicken the city’s pace, she said.

“We’ll embrace anyone to the party even if they’re arriving late,” she said.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected] .

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