Go Hillsborough is dead. Now what? Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill looks ahead
TAMPA — It’s unclear what’s next for transportation in Hillsborough County after commissioners shot down a proposal last month to raise the sales tax to pay for road and transit projects.
The 30-year, half-cent sales tax hike was the option recommended by County Administrator Mike Merrill after more than two years of study by consultants and staff. It was the only option, he insisted, that voters would willingly accept and still could knock out many of the county’s transportation needs.
Now that his preference appears dead and commissioners are scrambling to find other solutions, Merrill said he only wants one thing from his bosses and the community: “An honest debate.”
When it comes to the county’s $4.8 billion budget, and what in the budget can and cannot be realloced to road construction and bus lines, Merrill said he’s already fighting a misinformation campaign.
Much of that budget, about $1.4 billion, is made up of restricted funds, Merrill said, such as grant money from the federal government for specific purposes, or the $115 million indigent health care fund that is paid for by a dedicated portion of the sales tax. Another $1 billion are reserves, most of which can’t be touched by law, either.
Only $1.6 billion of the budget is unrestricted funds, he said. Of that, $317 million is for capital improvement projects, some already underway, and $338 million is allocated to transportation. Clearly, the county wouldn’t cut the transportation budget to fund transportation projects.
The rest includes $530 million for constitutional officers, like the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Clerk of the Circuit Court, and $330 million in department spending.
Commissioner Victor Crist has suggested a 2.5 percent cut across the board. But that’s looking at the entire $4.8 billion budget. When you take out the restricted funds, it would take a 10 percent cut to knock out the 10-year, $905 million list of transportation projects that commissioners recently approved, Merrill said.
“I don’t have $30 million of efficiencies in a $330 million budget. I just don’t,” Merrill said. “I know that's hard for people to grasp. You hear $4.8 billion and you try to explain to people most of that is restricted and they think, ‘You’re just lying to me.’
“This whole notion of a conspiracy that we’re not being honest about the budget is nuts,” he added. “We can discuss how to spend money, and we can discuss having less resources, we can realign and cut services. That’s an honest debate that I’m willing to have. Just tell me what you want first.”
Crist, though, insists there are still ways to look at the entire budget.
“The state does it all the time,” he said. “That’s rhetoric.”
Commissioners meet Wednesday for the first of three transportation and budget workshops. Merrill has asked them for direction and to decide which funding streams are on and off the table.
“The needs are only going to get greater and we already have deficiencies,” he said. “The longer we delay the worse it’s going to get.”
Merrill didn’t ask to become Hillsborough County administrator, and somewhat reluctantly accepted the job in 2010 after a majority of commissioners voted him into the position. At the time, the county was reeling from a scandal involving the previous administrator and was amid the tumult of the Great Recession.
Despite his initial hesitation and the sting of watching commissioners shoot down one of his administration’s greatest undertakings since he took office, Merrill, 62, said he’s not looking for the exit.
“I’m in the job. I don’t have any plans to leave,” Merrill said. “I think this has to get fixed and until it is we’re going to work at it. I’ll stay as long as they want me to.”
So far even commissioners who opposed Merrill’s recommendation on transportation continue to have confidence in him.
“Mike has done an admirable job for us,” County Commissioner Sandy Murman said. “There’s been some missteps but nobody is perfect. That’s going to happen with a county as big as Hillsborough.”
His greatest misstep, Murman said, was when Merrill briefly floated a one-cent, 30-year sales tax hike for transportation last year after already recommending the half-cent proposal. That was done without informing commissioners, she said, and injected distrust and confusion into an already contentious debate.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said Merrill and his staff have served the commission well.
“I don’t feel like he was out campaigning as some folks in the community claimed,” Higginbotham said.
Crist, too, said he has confidence in the administrator. But, he added, how Merrill and the commission are viewed — and view each other — could come down to whether a transportation plan eventually passes.
“Then I think you’ll see people begin to show either their frustrations or their pleasures, depending on which direction it goes,” he said. “If at the end of this the money isn’t in place to do something with transportation then I think Mike isn’t going to be happy and the commissioners aren’t going to be happy.”