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Hillsborough commissioners wrestling with issues on transit tax referendum

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners got no closer to approving ballot language for a proposed transit tax initiative after another workshop on the topic Wednesday.

Commissioners said they have too many unresolved concerns to start talking about how to ask voters if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for a commuter rail system, expanded bus service and road work.

Among their concerns: Who will oversee the expenditure of as much as $200 million a year raised from the sales tax? How will the money be distributed to the county and its three cities? What roads will get widened? How will the proposed rail system connect with commuter lines contemplated in surrounding counties?

Those are all questions to be resolved as the calendar creeps closer to a planned November referendum on the issue.

"It is not defined enough for me," said Rose Ferlita, a supporter of holding the referendum, who warned Wednesday that her support is conditional. "We are not even close."

Off the table now is a March 3 public hearing on possible ballot language. Instead, commissioners set another workshop for later this month in hopes of making decisions that could lead to ballot language by late March.

In the meantime, they urged the county staff to meet with other government officials with a stake in the discussion in preparation for giving them some recommendations. There were no firm recommendations from the county administration after months of debate leading to Wednesday's meeting.

"I believe everyone really does have the bigger picture in mind," said Lucia Garsys, the county's administrator for planning and infrastructure services who is helping lead staff work on the initiative.

A task force worked for more than two years to craft recommendations on how to improve the county's transportation network. It ultimately recommended raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for a light-rail system, a doubling of the county's public bus fleet and new spending on road widening.

The task force had recommended that 75 percent of the money raised from the tax go toward transit and the rest for road and other nontransit work. Some commissioners indicated that even that split may still be up for debate.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a leading backer of the initiative, expressed mild frustration that the county administration hasn't come forward with some concrete recommendations for resolving outstanding issues, or at least providing choices for commissioners to consider. Nevertheless, she said the hardest decisions have already been made — such as whether to pursue rail.

Rail backers are eager for commissioners to firm up the language and details of what will go to voters, so they can begin raising money for a public education campaign.

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

Hillsborough commissioners wrestling with issues on transit tax referendum 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 11:38pm]
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