Hillsborough cuts funding for public access

09/21/07 Mitch E. Perry
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The Hillsborough County Commission unanimously approved a $4-billion budget last night, their first since the state mandated budget cuts to cities and counties provide property tax relief.

The budget eliminates 442 jobs, including 97 positions currently held by full-time employees. Overall, it cuts nearly $56 million from the budget.

One of the biggest losers in the battle for fewer taxpayer dollars is the county’s public access channel, Speak up Tampa Bay.

Many citizens last night decried the cuts to social service programs as well, compared with increases for the Tampa Bay Sports Commisison and the Visitors & Convention Bureau.

There were many references throughout the three-hour plus hearing to the Tampa Sports Commission, which, unlike virtually every other department in the county, was not asked to submit a decrease in its budget, but instead was allocated $450,000 more than last’s year budget.

And Commission Chairman Jim Norman’s pet project, the $40-million dollar Championship Park Sports project, also got bashed.

The reason for the budget cuts is the state’s property tax crises. But there were grumbles by some that the cuts wouldn’t provide much relief for homeowners.

Susan Davis referenced the foreclosure crisis engulfing the country, and said citizens deserve a bigger property tax cut.

The county has three channels for Public Access, Education and Government programming. The government channel is looking at no financial cuts. However, the other two were in danger of seeing their share of funding from the county being completely cut.

Mark Klutho spoke up for the Education Channel. He said the channel has provided quality reporting on the dangers of global warming that is not reported by other stations.

The county’s Cable Access Channel, The Tampa Bay Community Network, also known as Speak Up Tampa Bay, was in a much more precarious position.

Earlier this decade, there was support to kill the station’s funding, led by former Commissioner Ronda Storms. Although she is gone, the bitter feelings among other commissioners apparently isn’t.

And that led producers at the station to make a desperate last-ditch effort to save their station.

After public ccomment ended, Commissioner Mark Sharpe made a motion to give both the Education Channel and the Tampa Bay Community Network a set $250,000 on a one-year basis. Sharpe cautioned this could be the last time the channels could get such funding.

Sharpe then broke his motion into two parts. The first, on funding the Education Channel, was supported 5-2, with only Jim Norman and Ken Hagen voting no.

But the decision on Public Access was in doubt. Weeks ago, three of the commmissioners -- Sharpe, Rose Ferlita and Kevin White -- had indicated that the channel should not be completely de-funded. But they could not find a fourth vote. Commissioner Ferlita then tried to lobby cable access, by reducing the amount to just $150,000.

But that also failed, on the predicted 4-3 vote. Ken Hagen, Brian Blair and Al Higgenbotham all voted no.

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