Hillsborough County's growing pains are coming into full view as county commissioners and School Board members grapple with how to pay for billions of dollars in new roads, mass transit, classrooms, policing, fire and other essential needs to serve the influx of new residents in the coming decades. The challenges include both coming up with the dollars and growing the community in ways that will protect agriculture, rural life and the environment in a region that is among the fastest-growing in the nation and a nerve center for Florida's economy. This is a good time for the county and the school district to work together toward a common purpose.
In a series of reports, Tampa Bay Times staff writers Marlene Sokol and Steve Contorno have framed the challenges facing local leaders. With the economy rebounding, residential growth is putting new and long-term demands on Hillsborough across the board — for new schools, fire and police, water and sewer, parks and transportation. Low unemployment, available land and resurgent housing prices have again made Hillsborough an epicenter of growth. And both the county and the school district are exploring how to manage these demands better than they did in the run-up to the last housing boom.
Wednesday's meeting of the County Commission was a decade in the making, as officials began a monthslong discussion over how to better link land use and transportation policies. With 600,000 new residents projected to move here in the next 25 years, Hillsborough needs to balance a pro-growth strategy with a plan for expanding the industrial base, moving people and goods and protecting drinking water and other natural resources.
The county will need 25 new fire stations in the next 25 years, which equates to $20 million in spending annually through 2031. Much of the new demand will come from south county, where thousands of acres are poised for suburban development to house the 150,000 new residents expected there by 2040. Of the 38 new schools needed over the next 15 years, 31 will be in south county. Transportation there is also among the county's worst, as the infrastructure is — like with schools and other public works — inadequate to serve a fast-growing population.
The encouraging news is that leaders at both the school district and the county, from Superintendent Jeff Eakins to County Commissioners Stacy White, Ken Hagan and Pat Kemp, are talking candidly about the costly and politically delicate dilemma of managing growth. The lull between the last housing boom and the recovery would have been a better time to start a serious conversation. Still, staff and the elected members of both boards seem to be in sync this time that uncontrolled growth is unaffordable, both in financial terms and in quality-of-life impacts. Sheriff David Gee framed the public safety issues involved in answering new calls for service.
There's still a big gap between what commissioners have said and what they have proposed for managing growth. Their refusal to put a serious transit package before the voters last year was a lost opportunity. They have a new opportunity, though, in working with the School Board on what clearly is the major challenge in the coming years. Hillsborough can build a foundation either for growth or for pushing it away.