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City of Tampa poised to cut off funding for two non-profit TV stations

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The City of Tampa is poised to end the funding for two non-profit television channels.

Needless to say, the cuts are not going over well with those impacted.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s proposed budget calls for the complete defunding of the Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network and the Tampa Bay Community Network (TBCN), better known as Tampa’s cable access channel. The operators at both stations say that while the cuts won’t be fatal to their work, it will leave them severely wounded.

The Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network will lose all of the $108,000 it receives from the city, leaving it with a budget of less than $250,000. TBCN faces a cut of more than $207,000, more than a third of its $600,000 annual budget.

There’s no question that the city is tightening it’s budget, as Buckhorn has asked the City Council to support raising the millage rate for the first time in nearly three decades. The mayor has indicated that several major bills, some going back to Dick Greco’s last administration, are coming due.

But Mario Nunez, the host of the “The Tampa Natives Show” on the Arts & Education Network, says the cuts are punitive.

“We understand austerity (and that) everybody’s got to do their part,” he says of the city’s budget. “(B)ut this is tantamount to a decapitation.”

Nunez had urged the Buckhorn administration to donate fiberglass figures from Lowry Park Zoo’s Fairyland park. The mayor declined and those items were ultimately purchased by entrepreneur Richard Gonzmart for nearly $30,000.

Nunez claims that the two television stations are the only line items in Buckhorn’s budget that would be completely defunded. Ashley Bauman, the mayor’s spokeswoman, confirmed that on Friday. Bauman tells SPB that all other non-profits which receive funding from the city will see their budgets reduced by just 10 percent, with the exception of the Homeless Coalition, which will maintain its current level of funding.

After a Bay News 9 story aired earlier this week quoting Tampa Bay Arts & Education network CEO Scott Maiden that the news of the defunding was a shock, Bauman emailed the Tampa City Council that, “In light of some of the inaccurate statements made in a recent TV story I wanted to make sure you had the accurate information. Attached is a letter that was sent to all of the nonprofits in April informing them of the looming financial challenges we face. Any comments to the effect that they were unaware are just not truthful.”

Louse Thompson, the executive director for the Tampa Bay Community Network, reacted with anger to Bauman’s missive.

“I just can’t believe they’re going down that road,” Thompson said Friday. “It sounds like a Trumpism. We’re talking about keeping these channels, and they’re going to say we’re ‘untruthful’ because we were shocked?”

After Thompson contacted Buckhorn, the mayor responded that he had informed all nonprofits in April that they should “expect a significant reduction or outright elimination of assistance from the City. In that same letter we suggested that you build your budget this year without anticipation of City support.”

The city’s government access channel, CCTV, is set to receive $1.3 million in next year’s budget, prompting Buckhorn to add that “(t)here is no need to fund two others.”

CCTV airs City Council and other City of Tampa government meetings, as well as press conferences and “The Mayor’s Hour,” a monthly program co-hosted by Buckhorn and Jack Harris.

“As the County did a number of years ago … we are choosing to go in a different direction,” Buckhorn wrote.

That’s not accurate, however. Although the county did announce in 2007 that they were eliminating its annual $355,000 allotment, partial county funding resumed two years later for video production training. Thompson says that TBCN is currently receiving $200,000 from the county.

TBCN’s programming became a political hot potato beginning in 2001, when Hillsborough Commissioners threatened to pull funding due to what was considered sexually provocative programming. A year later former Commissioner Ronda Storms made similar complaints about a performer named “White Chocolate.”

Thompson says that the city’s proposed cuts will compel her to contemplate staff layoffs and imperil the station’s mission, which she says is to train unemployed and underemployed residents of Hillsborough County. TBCN has six full-time and three part-time staffers. It once had a staff of fifteen.

The cuts come as Buckhorn is prepared to engage in serious discussions with the City Council about his proposed budget for the first time since he became mayor back in 2011. His proposed millage increase could be subjected to negotiations with the Council to have that amount reduced, with the possibility of some items on the budget being played off each other in order to get full support from the seven member board.

The city is facing some additional expenses deferred from past projects. That includes $24 million spent 20 years ago on public safety under Mayor Greco, of which Tampa will soon begin paying $13 million a year on that debt. Another $6 million was deferred from contributions to construction on Centro Ybor. There is also a possible $6 million annual hit if a constitutional amendment that would expand the homestead exemption passes next year.

TBCN took over Tampa’s public access channel in 2000 from Time Warner, which no longer wanted to abide the requirement to provide such funding. Thompson says they did so with the promise from Greco that it would be supported by the City. They received $540,000 per year from that date through the end of FY 2009, when it was reduced to $432,000 in FY 2010 and FY 2011.  In FY 2012, it went down to $276,180.  Since FY 2014, it’s gone down to $207,360.

Thompson has a message to the City Council and the public.

“It’ s not my channel, it’s the people’s channel,” she said. “It needs to be supported.”

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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