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Effort to get Hillsborough sales tax hike on ballot inches forward

TAMPA — County commissioners reached agreement Thursday on how they would share road-building money from a prospective sales tax hike with Hillsborough's three cities.

But they failed to make much headway on other matters needed to put the proposed 1-cent sales tax hike to voters. That includes agreeing to ballot language and deciding how a new rail system would be governed. Those issues still need considerable debate, some board members argued.

"It may appear we're taking baby steps here," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "But I think it's a good, healthy discussion that's taking place."

Commissioners have tentatively voted to support placing a question on the November ballot asking voters if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to build a commuter rail system, improve bus service and widen roads. Under the proposal, 75 percent of the money would go to mass transit.

How to split the remaining 25 percent that would go toward roads has been the subject of weeks of sometimes contentious negotiations between city and county officials. From that standpoint, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said commissioners' approval Thursday at least represented a step forward.

"That now has been settled," Iorio said.

Commissioners voted 4-3 that 90 percent of the money for the first 10 years of the tax would go to the county for roadwork on a list of widening and other projects identified by a transportation task force. The cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would get the rest.

After 10 years, 40 percent of the nontransit money would go toward completing what's left of the more than $700 million in roadwork identified by the task force. The rest would be split among local governments using the same formula for how the county's current half-cent community investment tax is distributed. Once all the task force projects are completed, all future proceeds would be split based on that formula, which is weighted to give the county the biggest share.

Commissioners Jim Norman, Al Higginbotham and Rose Ferlita voted against the financial agreement. Norman and Higginbotham both oppose the referendum outright and repeatedly voiced a similar argument against it: That is a permanent tax to pay for a rail system. They argue that proposed ballot language masks that by using the term "rapid transit" instead of rail.

"Man up," Norman said to Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a supporter of rail. "Tell the people what they're voting for."

Sharpe said it would pay for more than rail, ramping up money for different forms of bus service. The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates that about 42 percent of proceeds from the tax would pay to build and operate a rail system through 2025, a point Iorio emphasized afterward as well.

A discussion about other aspects of the referendum was tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Effort to get Hillsborough sales tax hike on ballot inches forward 02/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 11:32pm]
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