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Commission supports six new fire stations

Despite budget cuts, the county wants to build stations in some of the fastest-growing areas of unincorporated Hillsborough over the next three years.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


TAMPA -- Hillsborough County commissioners have issued their budgetary marching orders: Cut, cut, cut.

But when it comes to fire and rescue service, they plan to spend, spend, spend.

Commissioners on Tuesday tentatively endorsed a proposal to build six new fire stations during the next three years in some of unincorporated Hillsborough's fastest-growing areas. If the plan survives public hearings, the stations would be built in Town 'N Country, Pebble Creek, Lutz and other suburbs.

"I think public safety is something that's on a lot of people's minds," said Bill Nesmith, chief of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. "They're getting it from their constituents that it's important."

The county's top administration had recommended that commissioners stay the course with a plan to build three fire stations already in the planning. But commissioners pressed for a more aggressive expansion.

They did so after a presentation from Nesmith showing pronounced gaps between stations that result in response times of 8 minutes or less just 70 percent of the time. Health groups say a person's chance of surviving a heart attack declines dramatically after five minutes -- which is the target response time.

"People are not going to wait to have a heart attack," said Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank. "They don't say, 'Put me on the calendar in 2005.' "

Commissioners Stacey Easterling and Ronda Storms advocated an even more ambitious construction proposal to build 15 stations in six years. But commissioners instead voted for six stations and asked administrators to develop a plan for future construction.

The new stations would cost an estimated $9.5-million to build. Some of that money is already earmarked. But county budget director Eric Johnson said he expects the county to receive an unexpected $5-million extra from Community Investment Tax dollars that could cover some of the rest. A second round of Community Investment Tax dollars would take care of the remaining balance.

That leaves an estimated $5.9-million to run and staff the stations, and commissioners still must figure out where they'll get it. They are anticipating a sharp rise in property tax rolls this year based on initial estimates from the Property Appraiser's Office. They hope to approve spending increases in fire protection while cutting tax rates by reducing spending elsewhere.

Under the plan endorsed Tuesday, new stations would be built in: River Oaks at Sheldon Road and Waters Avenue; the Tampa Shores area of Town 'N Country; Chapman Road near U.S. 41 in Lutz; Providence Park; and still-to-be-determined locations in Pebble Creek and Northdale.

Commissioners gave the nod during a budget workshop. But the proposal still has to be aired during public hearings this summer after a formal budget proposal is unveiled in June.

- Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387.

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