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In Hillsborough, voters will decide light rail and other questions

In addition to a lengthy slate of proposed state constitutional amendments, Hillsborough County voters will see a handful of other issues on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The most significant one asks voters if they support imposing a 1 percent additional sales tax to pay for new commuter rail, expanded bus service and road work. The rail proposal, in particular, has been debated for nearly a generation in Hillsborough, though this is the first time residents will get to vote on it.

If approved, the overall sales tax rate in Hillsborough would climb to 8 cents on the dollar — the highest of any Florida county. It is expected to bring in roughly $180 million annually at the outset.

Advocates say the investment in rail and buses will give commuters options to avoid a future of road gridlock, while money for roads will help address a backlog of needed lane expansions throughout the county. They hope it also will spur redevelopment of areas along rail lines, sparking the economy and curbing sprawl.

"To get us back on track, we need a good plan. This is a very good plan," said former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Democrat who serves on the executive committee of Moving Hillsborough Forward, a group promoting the initiative. "The immediate improvement on roads, significant improvement in bus service and the construction of a light rail will dramatically help with our economy and create jobs."

Opponents say the weak economy makes this the worst time to be proposing a tax increase they say will largely benefit the city of Tampa. They argue that this is first and foremost a rail tax, that it represents a huge expense to move few commuters and that it will do little to ease road congestion.

"When is the last time you entered a contract with government and they upheld their end of the bargain?" said Al Higginbotham, who was one two county commissioners who voted against putting the question on the ballot. "My greatest concern is we have too many loose ends to be asking the public to fork over billions of dollars."

Planners estimate about 43 percent of the tax proceeds through 2035 would go toward building and operating a rail system. They hope to qualify for additional money from the state and federal government, largely for capital costs.

Initial plans call for building two rail lines, one connecting downtown Tampa to the area north of the University of South Florida and the other connecting to the West Shore business district by 2018. Planners are still conducting studies to determine whether rail lines would attract ridership and which routes would work best.

Future plans call for expansion to other areas, including South Tampa, Westchase and Brandon.

At the insistence of county commissioners, 25 percent of the money would go toward road building, primarily in unincorporated areas in initial years in an effort to ensure residents who don't live near rail lines get some traffic relief.

The rest would be used to more than double the county's existing bus fleet, and significantly increase express bus service and the frequency of buses on existing routes and regional circulars.

There are four other referenda for county voters:

• One asks voters whether or not language giving a prospective elected county mayor veto power should be removed from the county's charter. Advocates tried to ask voters in 2008 if they supported creating a county mayor position, but the question was challenged in court and removed.

A companion question giving the mayor veto power remained on the ballot, passed and got written into the county charter. The county's Charter Review Board voted this summer to give voters an opportunity to remove the language in an effort to "clean up" the charter.

• Another ballot question asks voters if they support redefining the responsibilities of the county's Internal Performance Auditor, changing the title to Internal Auditor. If approved, the job holder would no longer have budget analyst duties and would have his or her work supervised by an advisory committee.

• Another issue deals with redistricting of the four County Commission seats that represent specific regions of Hillsborough. Commissioners draw the boundaries every 10 years after the census after taking public comment.

The last time this happened, a new redistricting proposal emerged after public hearings had taken place and commissioners approved it. If voters answer yes to this ballot question, an additional public hearing would be required.

• Finally, a proposal by County Commissioner Ken Hagan asks voters if they support waiving county property tax assessments on new or expanding businesses for up to 10 years. The breaks would vary based on the number of jobs created and the wages that are offered.

Plant City voters will consider a similar ballot question for waiving their city's property tax assessments.

In Hillsborough, voters will decide light rail and other questions 10/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 5:18pm]

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