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Hillsborough commissioners reject latest transportation tax plan

By Steve Contorno
Hillsborough County will vote Thursday night on whether to raise the sales tax to fund transportation fixes. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2015)]

TAMPA — Six years ago, Hillsborough County voters rejected a referendum to raise the sales tax by a full penny for 30 years to pay for transportation projects.

This time, it won't even get that far.

For the second time in seven weeks, county commissioners on Thursday rejected a half-cent sales tax hike of 20 years on a 4-3 vote. Now it's increasingly likely that after three years of meetings, studies and debate, commissioners won't have a proposal to take to voters in November and they may walk away from the transportation conversation without a long-term solution.

Lines broke the same as they did in April: Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Ken Hagan and Les Miller voted for it; Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Stacy White voted no.

"I cannot in good conscious increase the tax burden on hardworking citizens by a margin of more than 7 percent," White said. The tax would've increased the sales tax from 7 cents on a dollar to 7.5 cents.

Commissioners then voted 4-3 to study an alternative proposal from Murman to divert future growth in sales and property taxes to transportation. The breakdown of the vote was the same.

Murman said her plan would give the county a base to pay for road work and other projects while the county conducts a larger transit study that includes whether to buy CSX rail lines for a commuter line.

"Why would we preclude that option when in 2, 3, 4 years we're going to be back here thinking, 'How can we go back to the voters one more time?" Murman said. "They're going to say, 'No, we gave you that shot.' "

Commissioners initially came to Thursday's meeting planning to consider a 15-year tax. But Hagan said that was a "watered-down" and "symbolic" solution and instead made a motion to bring back the 20-year tax that commissioners previously rejected. He implored his colleagues to let the voters decide.

"Why would we deprive the public of that right?" he asked.

But none of the previous no voters were swayed.

The public hearing Thursday lasted well into the evening as 69 speakers signed up to weigh in on whether the county should raise the sales tax by a half cent.

Young professionals and business leaders turned out in large numbers to push commissioners toward a resolution that would reinvent Hillsborough's transportation system to lessen gridlock and repair crumbling roads. Many advocated for a sales tax of at least 20 years, insisting that a long-term funding was needed for a transformative plan and to attract federal grants. They wore buttons that said "Yes! to 20," a campaign pitch from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Jeff Lucas of Tampa said he moved here from Atlanta where he spent hours of his day stuck in traffic and predicted Hillsborough would head that way as it's population boomed.

"I've seen our future and I can paint the picture for you and it's not pretty," said Lucas, who added that many tourists will be paying the tax as well.

A half-cent sales tax would raise $117.5 million a year, the county estimates.

But the advocates were matched almost equally by opponents of any tax hike, many from the suburbs and rural parts of the county who questioned the county's plan and didn't want to pay for transit in Tampa they won't use.

Others said commissioners hadn't demonstrated a willingness to support transportation in the past and were now looking to taxpayers for an easy fix.

One speaker, Yvette Maldonado, sarcastically suggested that commissioners may discover the will to pave roads if they were named after baseball stadiums.

"Wow," she said, "I think I found the solution folks."

The hearing, though in a different location, was nearly identical to one on April 27, when more than 60 people offered diverging opinions on how best to pay for much-needed road work and much-desired transit projects here.

That meeting ended after commissioners rejected 4-3 proposals to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 7.5 percent for periods of 20 and 30 years. In May, though, they voted 5-2 to instead consider a 15-year tax.

"What part of no don't you people understand?" said Kathy Brown, wearing a sticker with "Tax" crossed out.

Since then, commissioners have met repeatedly in a desperate attempt to find common ground and pass some kind of solution. Instead, divisions only deepened.

The last-minute proposal first introduced Wednesday by Murman further muddied the waters. Assuming 5 percent growth in county taxes each year, Murman insisted her proposal could replace the sales tax.

Despite the decision, commissioners won't leave its three-year transportation initiative completely empty-handed.

The commission already set a policy that half of all future growth in property tax revenue for the next three years and one-third after that will go toward transportation. They also passed new mobility fees that eventually could bring in $35 million a year from developers.

Still, with an estimated $9 billion in current and future transportation needs, the policies already passed likely won't be enough. There's consensus on the board that the county's transportation network is a problem that will burden future boards, economic recruitment efforts and overall quality of life for citizens. But a solution remains elusive.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the county's lack of action is handcuffs the cities, which cannot raise sales taxes on their own. Each city and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would have received a piece of the sales tax surcharge.

"Unfortunately, the commission's majority continues to lack the courage to let voters decide the way we move forward," Buckhorn said. "Any plan that does not incorporate the needs of the three cities is not a plan and is merely a failed effort by politicians more concerned about the next election rather than the next generation."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.