TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman borrowed a page from the president on Tuesday.
He proposed giving county residents tax rebate checks to help get them through these troubling financial times and perhaps spur the local economy.
The money is there, Norman said, because bids for several county road-building projects are coming in tens of millions of dollars below projections.
President Bush may be his model. But Norman cited as his inspiration GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's much publicized increase in oil "resource rebates" paid to Alaskans.
"We should try to be creative and send that money back," Norman said of the savings. "That's what people need right now. We've got to get our local … economy healed."
Most of the other commissioners applauded Norman's proposal, in concept. And residents attending a public hearing on this year's county budget also voiced support.
"My family can use a buck," said community activist Gerald White. "I want as much money as you can give us back."
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, however, questioned the idea as shortsighted. "Let's don't get carried away here," he said.
Hagan noted that the county has a backlog of as much as $2-billion in unfunded road-building needs. He has won support from commissioners over the past year to spend $500-million in sales tax money on roadwork.
If the price of building roads is dropping, Hagan said, the county should take advantage of that to get more done. Ask residents of New Tampa and Tampa Palms, who have been waiting for years for Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to get widened, he said.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe asked for an estimate of how much of a rebate might be possible before he makes a decision. Commissioner Brian Blair, while applauding the idea, said the emphasis should be on long-term property tax reduction.
It's not clear whether Norman's idea can even happen. Most of the money for county road building comes from sales taxes collected from residents and visitors alike, with no way of identifying who paid how much.
Norman didn't say who would get the refunds. Giving rebates to people who pay property taxes may be most logical, but could be challenged as unfair. He also pitched the possibility of lowering gas taxes to reflect lower costs, if rebates aren't possible. But that tax is set each July 1 and takes effect Jan. 1, so the deadline for changing it next year has passed.
Management and budget director Eric Johnson said he doesn't have firm numbers yet on how much money is at stake. His staff, along with county attorneys, will research whether a rebate is possible before a final budget public hearing Sept. 16.
"I just don't know whether it's legal or how it can be done," Johnson said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.