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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Hillsborough County Commission candidates face Tiger Bay -- well some of them



Voters won't just be deciding whether they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for new commuter rail, expanded bus service and road work in November.

It's also a big part of how they're judging candidates for the Hillsborough County Commission, the political body who put the sales tax question on the ballot.

The proposed tax was a recurring theme at the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa luncheon Wednesday. The candidates were asked a couple of times to share their thoughts on the topic. It drew some of the more spirited responses from the office seekers, even though most of them voiced support for at least letting voters decide the matter.

"It's an investment," said former Tampa City Council member and Democrat Linda Saul-Sena, who is seeking the District 5 at-large seat against current commissioner Ken Hagan and Republican, who is attempting to move seats.

"It's a ripoff," said former planner Jim Hosler, running without party affiliation for the same seat.

Hosler was joined by state Sen. Victor Crist, a Republican running running for the District 2 seat, which represents much of northern Hillsborough. He argued that with the state facing future deficits in the billions, it is likely that new expenses are going to be placed on local governments, making a plan to raise the sales tax now not "fiscally sound."

Of the 13 candidates present, only Neil Cosentino, a candidate without party affiliation for the District 7 seat, also was opposed.

However, absent from the meeting were two Republican candidates who have said they don't support the tax: Sandy Murman, District 1 and Josh Burgin, District 7. Hagan, following a practice of past elections of not showing up to most organized forums, also was a no-show. He voted to ask voters the question, but has said he likely won't support it himself.

The candidates at Wednesday's unweildy forum -- the number of them present eliminated almost any back and forth -- fielded questions ranging from their support (or lack of it) for Hometown Democracy to their thoughts on how to keep from firing their next county administrator. They were also asked their thoughts on the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Those in the audience looking for solid contrasts to help them make their picks were left wanting.

Most of the candidates, for instance, said they oppose Hometown Democracy's proposed Constitutional amendment that would require voter approval for changes to community growth plans, with some of them acknowledging the frustration with sprawl that has spawned it.

Each expressed some measure of desire to ensure that the Rays remain in the Tampa Bay region, and voiced a need for improved dialogue among local governments.

Hosler was the most reliable contrarian. On the Rays question, for instance, he said Hillsborough needs to keep its nose out of St. Petersburg's business. Hagan, his opponent, has led efforts to have Hillsborough take part in discussions about the Rays' future.

"We (already) spend way too much money on sports in Hillsborough County," Hosler said.

Trey Rustmann, District 1, and Linda Pearson, District 2, joined District 7 incumbent Mark Sharpe as Republicans in favor of the transit tax, despite the anti-tax fervor rolling through segments of the party as the economy continues to sag.

-- Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 3:41pm]


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