Mayor Buckhorn to blame for Go Hillsborough's demise, county commissioner says
TAMPA — If Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is angry that the Hillsborough County Commission voted against a sales tax hike to fund its transportation needs, he has no one to blame but himself, says one county commissioner.
Commissioner Victor Crist told the Tampa Bay Times that Buckhorn’s demand for a 30-year tax sealed the fate of Go Hillsborough, the county transportation initiative three years in the making.
The county commission voted 4-3 on April 27 to kill a proposed referendum that would have asked voters to support a half-cent sales tax increase to fund $117.5 million a year in road construction and new transit.
Crist cast the last no vote.
“I walked into that room ready and prepared to make a tough decision, and when he said, ‘Give me 30 years or nothing,’ that ended it for me,” Crist said. “I couldn’t make a 30-year commitment.”
Buckhorn addressed commissioners before the public hearing and implored them not to pass anything less than a 30-year funding plan. The mayor was addressing the possibility of the commission accepting a 10-year or 20-year tax as a compromise.
In the days leading up to the vote Buckhorn said he wouldn’t waste “our time and political capital” campaigning for less than a longterm solution.
“At some point some of those commissioners are going to have to demonstrate political courage,” he said.
The insistence on a 30-year plan stems from the city’s desire to build a light rail line from its downtown to Tampa International Airport. A long-term funding source was the only way to get the bonding that made it affordable, Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn sent commissioners a letter outlining how Tampa intended to spend its share of the tax revenue, though the city council had yet to approve the list of projects.
The letter allocated $36 million for design and construction of what was expected to be a $480 million light rail line. It assumed significant contributions from the state and federal government. But Crist said beyond that he didn’t see enough details about it like what it would cost to operate, how many riders were expected, where it would stop and where it would run.
“It was give me a check and I’ll give you a rail system,” Crist said.
Commissioners Sandy Murman, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White joined Crist in voting against the 30-year proposal. With the mayor vowing not to support anything less, they also all voted against a 20-year tax.
It's not as though a 30-year tax came from Buckhorn or out of nowhere. The county spent several years developing a plan with a 30-year funding stream in mind. The Policy Leadership Group, a consortum of local leaders from the cities and county, voted to recommend the a half-cent, 30-year tax hike back in November, which was first laid out in detail by County Administrator Mike Merrill proposed last summer.
It also had the backing of the business community.
Crist said he cast doubts at the start of the Go Hillsborough initiative that residents had the stomach to raise taxes for three decades so soon after a recession. But he also voted along with the majority of PLG members in November to advance the 30-year plan.
The decision by the board to go against the PLG recommendation was a “profile in cowardice," Buckhorn said after the meeting.
“I know he’s hot, I know he’s angry, but he’s got to understand, he didn’t fulfil his end of the obligation and that was getting us a workable plan in writing,” Crist said. “The mayor had a beautiful vision and he is an incredible salesman, but once we sat and came to our senses, we realized there’s more needed here than a picture.”
City and the county leaders have had a cordial if not productive working relationship in recent years, putting aside many of the territorial spats of their predecessors.
But the transportation divide has reopened a chasm between the Democratic city and a county board dominated by Republicans and suburban and rural commissioners. And in many ways, Tampa is at the mercy of the more conservative county because state law prohibits city referendums to raise the local sales tax.
Buckhorn told the Times that he’s done guessing how commissioners are going to pay for all the transportation needs in Hillsborough.
"As long as the county commission has any say in this at all I am not optimistic,” he said. “I've ceased to try to figure out what they're thinking or why they're thinking it."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.