Public access TV backers seek reprieve from cuts

County commissioners will make their final budget decisions Sept. 20.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 6, 2007

TAMPA - For months, local and state governments have heard the cry of residents wanting cuts in their tax bills.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners were greeted by a standing-room-only crowd and dozens of speakers asking them to spare their nonprofit groups or government agencies.

Chief among them were leaders and supporters of the county's public and education access television stations, which are facing elimination. Commissioners have tentatively voted to no longer spend any money on either program.

The two stations got $874,443 between them last year, amounts that hadn't been increased for several years.

"These cuts are obviously an effort to eliminate the public's ability to speak out," said one speaker, Mark Adams.

Ultimately commissioners took no action, though Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita both asked the administration to explore ways to give the stations a portion of or as much money as they got last year. Commissioners make final decisions on the budget after a second public hearing Sept. 20.

County Administrator Pat Bean warned at the outset Wednesday that because of budget restraints forced upon local governments by the state, "any additional spending that you ask of us tonight will require offsetting cuts."

Bean has proposed a $3.68-billion overall budget. Of the part paid for largely with property taxes, she has recommended cutting spending by roughly $55-million, an amount the county says will force hundreds of layoffs of full- and part-time employees.

Only a couple of people addressing commissioners spoke in favor of tax relief.

"I would hope this commission would save us from ourselves," said Tampa community activist Gerald White. "You need to hold fast to these cuts and find more."

Most advocated for leaving their causes whole.

In addition to those who want cable access channel spending restored, another recurring theme among speakers was objection to a proposed 10 percent cut to spending by the Hillsborough County City-County Planning.

Planning Commission Executive Director Bob Hunter estimated that he will have eliminate four jobs after keeping staffing flat for several years.

Others protested steep cuts to individual nonprofit groups, from those that help the poor and those that provide programs for at-risk children. The latter include the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope and the COACH Foundation.

Several speakers ripped commissioners for favoring those cuts at a time when the county is doubling spending on the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to $900,000. The group promotes amateur athletic events in Hillsborough County.

Others noted that the Tampa Sports Authority is proposing to spend $1.5-million on replacing all the televisions in luxury suites with high-definition models in time for the 2009 Super Bowl. That cost will fall to taxpayers.

"I don't want this board to be remembered as the board that supports the jockstraps of the Sports Authority over the bootstraps of education," said long-time educator Lynn McDaniel said.

Bill Varian can be reached at 813 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.