TAMPA — There is now ballot language for a proposed transit tax referendum in Hillsborough County.
After months of debate, county commissioners on Wednesday approved the wording for a proposed November referendum asking voters if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for local commuter rail, expanded bus service and road work. It passed 5-2, with Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham voting no.
"I would say this was good movement forward today," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a leading advocate for a rail system who was sitting in the audience.
Meanwhile, a group backing the initiative filed elections paperwork this week forming a political action committee, Moving Hillsborough Forward. The group is led by Gary Sasso, chairman of the economic booster group Tampa Bay Partnership.
"We can no longer afford to do nothing," Sasso said. "We need this comprehensive transportation plan to attract new businesses to Hillsborough to keep and multiply jobs."
Commissioners still must give final approval to an ordinance to formally place the measure on the ballot. Any approval would have to take place following a public hearing, which commissioners are now hoping to hold sometime in mid or late April.
And there are other details to be worked out.
Commissioners must approve a formal list of roadwork they intend to perform with the portion of the tax proceeds that would go toward traditional transportation fixes. An advisory panel working with the board is nearing consensus, particularly on the slate of road work for southern and eastern Hillsborough, which has been the subject of some contention.
They also must approve an agreement between Hillsborough County, its three cities and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority, which would run the rail and bus system. That's where many of the fine details of what will be done with the sales tax money will be spelled out, such as providing assurances that a rail system will be able to hook up with rail systems developed in surrounding counties.
The ballot language includes several key components that Commissioner Rose Ferlita had insisted on getting in recent weeks.
The most critical, Ferlita said, was including wording that spells out that 75 percent of the sales tax proceeds would go toward transit, and the remaining 25 percent toward roads. Ferlita, who says she supports the rail referendum, said the wording was necessary to assure voters that future politicians won't try to change the split without seeking their approval.
Ferlita also pressed to have language spelling out that voters are being asked to approve a new tax toward the beginning of the ballot question.
"People need to know what they're agreeing to do," Ferlita said. "I think it's important to be honest with the public."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]