Commissioners approve plans for first needle exchange program in Hillsborough County

The goal is to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and their children.

Anastasia Dawson


TAMPA — It’s a controversial solution to a complicated problem — and one that Hillsborough County has never tried before.

But with a groundswell of support from local health agencies, county commissioners gave final approval on Wednesday to launch a countywide needle and syringe exchange program.

Local governments throughout the country have operated similar programs for decades as a way to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and their children. But Hillsborough’s forthcoming Syringe Service Program, expected to begin in March, will be one of the first of its kind in state history.

Launching any county-wide programs where citizens could get free hypodermic needles and syringes in exchange for used ones was banned by the Florida Legislature until late last year, when lawmakers learned the results of a five-year pilot program in Miami-Dade County and reversed the ruling.

Local governments are still prohibited from using state, county or municipal funding to launch a needle exchange. Yet at least three other counties — Manatee, Palm Beach and Broward — have also begun efforts to begin their own programs in the wake of the decision.

For Commissioner Sandra Murman, who has worked to launch a Hillsborough-based program, the proof was in the numbers.

The University of Miami, which was tasked by the state with overseeing the pilot project, reported steady decreases in the the number of opioid-related deaths in Miami-Dade County – from 321 deaths in 2016 to 305 in 2017 to 213 in 2018. It was the only county in the state where the number of opioid-related deaths actually decreased in 2018.

In 2017, Hillsborough County reported 179 opioid-related deaths. In 2018, that number increased to 222.

The county has also grappled with a surge in the number of citizens living with HIV. In 2018, Hillsborough County counted 7,521 citizens living with the virus, at least 323 of whom were newly diagnosed. Considering that the average lifetime cost of HIV treatment is about $400,000 per person, Murman said, the new initiative will not only save lives but also taxpayer dollars.

“Hillsborough County is experiencing one of the highest HIV rates in the state of Florida. We have the highest opioid death rate. We have to do something,” Murman urged the board at Wednesday’s meeting.

“This is a tool in the toolbox,” she said. “Every single inch of this program has been scrutinized legally, medically and socially because I wanted to answer my own concerns on whether we were doing the right thing. And I can say now we are absolutely doing the right thing.”

The initiative came to the board with the unanimous support of Hillsborough’s 52-member Health Care Advisory Board as well as the county’s Behavioral Health Task Force. A lengthy review of programs throughout the country found little evidence that these initiatives led to increased intravenous drug use or crime like lawmakers feared, county health officials said.

Commissioners have yet to approve any contracts or agreements with the agencies needed to support the program. But the county’s Health Care Services department has already secured partnerships with agencies including Tampa General Hospital, the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, the USF Department of Mental Health Law and Policy, Gracepoint, Metro Inclusive Health and the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, known as DACCO.

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The program can easily be supported by existing outreach initiatives sponsored by the university and Tampa General Hospital. The current plan is to operate the program out of vans owned by USF’s Tampa Bay Street Medicine student organization.

The group has already identified three target areas around Hillsborough Avenue and 22nd Street where the mobile teams would not only pass out free syringes, but also provide condoms, alcohol swabs and Narcan, said Dr. Asa Oxner, a doctor at Tampa General and an associate program director of internal medicine at USF.

“We have a grant already that we are using to pay for prescription medications for these patients, and that grant could be used to buy the starting stock of syringes that we would use for the exchange,” Oxner said. “We would be ready to go as soon as it’s voted into ordinance.”

Jason Wilson, an emergency medicine doctor at Tampa General, is tapped to serve as one of the program’s medical directors. With the county’s existing partnerships, Wilson said, the program can also provide those patients with mental health counseling, connect them to social services for long-term care and provide on-site medical treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes, hepatitis C and HIV.

“When I trained, patients would come in with a drug overdose and we really had no options for those patients,” Wilson said. “We would tell them, ‘Good luck, here’s a list of resources, I hope you do better.’ Patients died.”

“I think we have an opportunity here today to save patients’ lives,” Wilson said.


Small business impact noted, support available


Published on: December 5, 2019

Recognizing the major impact small businesses have on the local economy, Hillsborough County commissioners gave a plug to small business owners while the Riverview Chamber’s Tanya Doran asked shoppers to think beyond Small Business Saturday.

Launched by American Express in 2010 and held the last Saturday in November, Small Business Saturday aims to increase sales for smaller businesses during a time of the year when big-box stores and e-commerce interests promote Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

At their Nov. 6 board meeting, Hillsborough County commissioners, back, issued a proclamation in support of Small Business Saturday, founded by American Express in 2010 and held the last Saturday of November. Commissioner Sandra Murman, front, in red, spearheaded the proclamation, which recognizes Nov. 30 as this year’s shop local push. With Murman are, from left, Lindsey Kimball, with the county’s economic development council, and Dellinda and Greg Rabinowitz, co-founders of Urban E Recycling, which disposes and recycles electronics in the Tampa Bay area.

Doran, executive director of the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, “loves the aspect of Small Business Saturday, but I want to take it outside that one Saturday a year and make it a year-round effort,” she said. “We need to get the community to realize we have these wonderful, great small businesses in our area and that to keep them open, we have to support them.”

According to Doran, 75 to 80 percent of her chamber’s almost 800 members own businesses with 20 or fewer employees.

By shopping local “you’re supporting those who work, live and play in your community,” she said. “These are moms and pops and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles who pay taxes to support the quality of life in our community.”

Commissioner Sandra Murman presented the Small Business Saturday proclamation read at the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners board meeting Nov. 6.

“Our community would not be a success without its small businesses and our budding entrepreneurs,” she said, noting that more than 80 percent of businesses in Hillsborough County have 10 or fewer employees.

According to the 2018 Small Business Profile produced by the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 30.2 million small businesses throughout the country, accounting for 99.9 percent of businesses nationwide. This accounts for 58.9 million small business employees, representing 47.5 percent of employees nationwide.

Hillsborough County supports “incubators, accelerators, education partners and other resources to help entrepreneurs be successful through access to capital, mentors and training,” said Murman, in recognizing the Hillsborough County Entrepreneur Collaborative Center (ECC), established in 2014 and spearheaded by then-commissioner Mark Sharpe.

The ECC is designed to provide easy access to business service providers, resources, mentors and specialty training for small- to mid-sized businesses at all stages of development and in a wide range of categories, including pre-venture, start-up, micro-enterprise, community-based, targeted industry and technology and innovation.

According to Murman, the ECC “is home to more than 85 partners providing more than 14,000 points of assistance” and has become “the center of gravity for anyone looking to start or grow their business here in Hillsborough County.”

The center is home as well to the Florida Small Business Development Center at Hillsborough County, which has Tampa Bay locations at the University of South Florida (Port Tampa Bay Building, 1101 Channelside Drive, Suite 210) and USF CONNECT (3802 Spectrum Blvd., Suite 111). The FSBDC provides no-cost consulting, low-cost training and access to business data and research resources. Specialized services include capital access, market growth, government contracting, international trade, cybersecurity, disaster planning and more.

Operated by the Hillsborough County Economic Development Department, the ECC is centrally located in Ybor City at 2101 East Palm Avenue, Tampa. Parking is at 2109 East 11th Avenue. The center is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with evening and weekend hours available upon request. Call: 813-204-9267 or visit: and search for “Entrepreneur Collaborative.”

For information about local offerings for FSBDC, a statewide network of more than 40 offices from Pensacola to Key West, visit For the Florida network, visit

For information about the U.S. Small Business Administration, including size standards and free business planning tools and resources, visit



Proposals for Tampa Bay Water
reservoir repair as high as $170 million

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer

In Print: Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CLEARWATER — Fixing Tampa Bay Water’s cracked reservoir
could cost between $120 million and $170 million, according to the repair
proposals from three contractors that were unveiled Monday at the utility’s
board meeting.

Expanding the 15-billion-gallon reservoir — already
Florida’s largest — by 3 billion gallons would add $40 million to the tab,
engineer Jon Kennedy told the utility board. The whole package could wind up
costing even more. Or it could cost less.

“The costs may fluctuate and come back different,”
Kennedy told the board, depending on the negotiations with the three

The big question mark, at this point, is whether it will
require raising the utility’s rates. At this point, no one knows, although last
year utility officials said it was possible.

However, in a budget workshop where rising expenses from the
desalination plant came up, several board members said they wanted to avoid any
rate hikes right now, given the region’s economic conditions.

“I can’t see how we can justify asking for one more
penny from our constituents,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy
Murman told her colleagues on the board of Tampa Bay Water, which supplies
water wholesale to Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough utilities to sell to

The utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in
June 2005 to store water skimmed from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and
Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime congressman from
Pinellas County, covers about 1,100 acres in Hillsborough County.

The reservoir’s walls consist of an earthen embankment as
wide as a football field at its base, averaging about 50 feet high. An
impermeable membrane buried in the embankment prevents leaks. The embankment’s
top layer, a mixture of soil and concrete to prevent erosion, began cracking in
December 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 15½ inches deep.
Workers patched the cracks, but the patches didn’t last.

An investigation found water is getting trapped between the
soil-concrete lining and the membrane. As long as the reservoir is full, the
trapped water remains stable. When the utility draws down the reservoir,
though, pressure increases on trapped water in some areas, producing cracks and
soil erosion.

The cracks have not been deemed a safety hazard to the
structure, but utility officials say if they don’t fix their underlying cause,
conditions could get worse. But the reservoir’s designer, HDR Engineering, says
the problem is not that serious, and could be solved with a simple monitoring
and maintenance program that would cost less than $1 million a year.

Tampa Bay Water’s lawsuit against HDR is set for trial in
July. Utility officials are hoping any damages won in the lawsuit will defray
the cost of fixing the reservoir and eliminate the need to raise rates.

The three companies vying for the contract to fix the
reservoir are Granite Construction Co., Kiewit Infrastructure South and Skanska
USA Civil Southeast. Initially, utility officials had pegged the repair price
tag at $125 million — nearly as much as the $144 million reservoir cost to
build originally.

While the range of possible costs now exceeds that estimate,
Kennedy said those estimates also include some items that were not part of the
original request for proposals — five years of maintenance after the repair
work, for instance.

The board will hold a special workshop May 16 to hear all
the proposals, and then will vote in June on which one to negotiate a contract
with. The final vote on that contract is slated for August.

During the negotiations, the board will make a decision on
the proposed expansion of the reservoir, which will require building the walls higher.
Kennedy said the plans call for starting work on the repair — and, if approved,
the expansion — in September 2012. Officials have said the reservoir would have
to be drained for two years to complete the work.


Armijo Fired by HART Board

Armijo fired by HART board

By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune

Published: April 19, 2011

TAMPA – The region’s bus authority has a temporary new
leader after the HART board voted late Monday to fire Chief Executive David
Armijo without cause.

Armijo said he would meet this morning with his attorney to
decide what to do next. He left little doubt he planned to sue the Hillsborough
Area Regional Transit Authority.

“The board made its decision in an absence of facts and
evidence,” Armijo said.

HART Chief Operating Officer Philip Hale will take over the
750-employee county bus system that Armijo led to record ridership.

The 7-4 vote came in a stunningly swift motion at the end of
a 41/2-hour meeting. A previous motion to keep him aboard on 90 days probation
died on a 5-6 vote.

Board members  David Mechanik, Michael York, Sandra
Murman, Mark Sharpe, Kevin Beckner, Wallace Bowers and Alison Hewitt voted to
fire Armijo.

Board members Fran Davin, Steven Polzin, Ron Govin and John
Byczek opposed the motion.

Details of the allegations and identities of the
complainants who filed challenges under HART’s whistleblower act remained
undisclosed, despite efforts of several of the HART board members to get them

The board had hired a law firm to explore allegations that
Armijo retaliated against a handful of high-ranking employees who disagreed
with him and claims that Armijo improperly used travel funding that amounted to
less than $200.

Board members said there was no reason to terminate Armijo for
cause and there was no evidence he had violated the law.

“The process was manipulated by a number of people who
provided no evidence,” Armijo said.

Armijo was employed under a contract that expires Sept.. 30,
2012, and paid $185,338 in salary, along with opportunities for merit increases
and performance bonuses.

According to the terms of his contract, Armijo will receive
180 days of severance pay plus payment for medical and life insurance premiums.

HART under Armijo has reported record ridership in recent
months, with March being the 13th consecutive month of 1 million-plus

However, HART faces immediate challenges, with possible
operational budget shortfalls of $3.2 million in fiscal 2012 and $5.9 million
for fiscal 2013 under current plans that are under staff review to find ways to
balance the budgets.

Expenses are expected to rise from a current $2.30 a gallon
for diesel fuel that HART arranged for its fiscal 2011 budget to facing diesel
fuel prices the federal government predicts could reach $3.37 a gallon in the
next two years.