Tampa, county wisely looking to cooperate

Published May 29, 2007

The state debate over tax reform has already had one good effect. Leaders in Hillsborough are beginning to acknowledge the efficiency of consolidating some Tampa and county services. The two governments will meet this summer to discuss combining trash collection, purchasing, employee relations and other services. While those tasks are small in the larger scheme of government operations, the move is encouraging.

In reality, this is no huge leap. Tampa and Hillsborough already have combined several essential services - a city-county bus system, environmental protection agency, planning commission and library system. Despite political differences between the city and the more conservative unincorporated areas, the joint approach has worked. The two sit on the boards that manage Tampa's port, airport and expressways and they jointly fund tourist and major economic development projects.

So there is nothing earth-shattering about having one agency manage road work or one office handle the purchase of everything from paper clips to garbage trucks. The real barrier is in consolidating police and fire services. That's where the money goes - local governments spend about half their budgets on public safety - and that's where the politicians, sensitive to the clout of the police and fire unions, tend to draw the line. "We ought to hang on to what the city does best and what the county does best, " Commissioner Rose Ferlita, a former Tampa City Council member, told the Times' Janet Zink.

That concern is valid. But if the goal here is to save money and make government more efficient, then the city and county need a better idea how their operations compare. Take police and fire off the table, and local government has only a couple areas to save real money, chiefly parks, public works and administration. Tampa and Hillsborough will have to go further to achieve meaningful savings. But it is good to see Ferlita and Commissioner Mark Sharpe and City Council members Tom Scott and John Dingfelder put consolidation on the radar. The discussion should help bring the city and county together to look beyond jurisdictional lines to a model for better government.