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Hillsborough transit tax, Children's Board votes both headed to ballot in 2016

TAMPA — Local officials unveiled a plan last week to ask Hillsborough County voters to consider a new 1-cent sales tax to help pay for fixes to the county's transportation system in 2016.

Trouble is, that wouldn't be the only tax going to voters that year.

"Here's the problem," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says. In 2016, the property tax that funds the Children's Board of Hillsborough County is up for renewal.

"Both of them are needed," Buckhorn says, but "if you're the average voter" there's the chance "you're going in there saying, 'What am I picking, kids or roads?' "

That's something officials want to avoid, so they've begun to sort through the alternatives.

Florida law requires the Children's Board referendum to take place at the general election in November 2016.

One option: holding the transportation tax referendum in the spring during the countywide presidential preference primary.

Another: holding a special election, though Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill says that would come with a couple of challenges.

First, special elections aren't free. (How much one would cost is hard to predict, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says. But the city of Tampa's municipal election in 2011 cost nearly $750,000. That was for 200 city precincts. Countywide, there are 347.)

Also, Merrill says, a special election wouldn't necessarily bring the "bounce" in turnout that comes with an election with more on the ballot.

A third idea could be to help sell a transportation tax by having the board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority reduce the property tax it levies, then use new revenue from the sales tax to make up the difference, Merrill says. The HART board, which has not discussed the idea, could reduce the property tax without a referendum. Voters would still have to approve any new transportation sales tax.

Not on the radar: putting both tax questions on the same ballot.

"It's always difficult to go and ask for a tax increase of any kind and more so when it appears you're doubling up," Merrill says.

While officials are aware of the timing of the Children's Board vote, Merrill says the focus now is to engage Hillsborough residents in a discussion of the possible menu of transportation improvements that would be paid for with a transportation tax.

Merrill says that menu focuses first on safety projects, then on addressing the $670 million in paving needs throughout the county and then on alleviating congestion through initiatives that include light rail.

"The menu comes from needs that have been expressed by the community over the years," he says. "A lot of the projects have been on the shelf because we couldn't fund them."

Meanwhile, child welfare advocates are gearing up for a campaign of their own.

Along with the Children's Board, the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board also is scheduled to come up for renewal at its own referendum in November 2016, which will give child welfare advocates a chance to talk about both agencies at the same time.

The Children's Board, which went through a re-organization led by former Mayor Pam Iorio after the departure of CEO Luanne Panacek in 2012, provides about $28 million a year in support of more than 50 local organizations.

Those programs include six Family Resource Centers across the county that offer services focused on child development, health and safety, an Early Childhood Council developmental screening program for children 5 and younger, and a healthy moms, healthy babies program run by the Pregnancy Care Center of Plant City.

To support its programs, the Children's Board levies a property tax of a little less than 46 cents for each $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. For a taxpayer with a home assessed at $200,000 and standard homestead exemptions, that amounts to less than $6 a month.

Several South Florida children's welfare agencies are up for renewal this year, and supporters of Hillsborough's board plan to watch those votes for lessons they can apply in 2016.

"There's going to be a fairly large grassroots effort put up by children's advocates to get this passed," said David Kennedy, a past Children's Board chairman who, along with his wife, Liz, is organizing a group of volunteers to support the reauthorization.

That effort will entail consulting with an elections attorney, hiring a campaign consultant and raising funds. It already has put Kennedy in touch with elected officials who he says support the board's reauthorization.

"One of the reasons we are getting volunteers together early to start making our case to the voters is that we know there will be some antitax push-back, particularly if there's a transportation issue on the ballot," Kennedy says.

But not everyone anticipates that a single ballot with two tax questions would necessarily put either at risk.

Voters are smarter than officials sometimes give them credit for being, says County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a leading supporter of the transit initiative. He noted that in 2008, Hillsborough voters reauthorized a local property tax earmarked to buy environmentally sensitive land on a ballot crowded with state constitutional amendments and one particularly confusing county charter amendment.

Trying to reschedule something to avoid a conflict often just creates another, Sharpe says. Better, in his opinion, to go to the voters when you're ready and let them "weigh each one separately and make a decision."

"The voters will be able to discern and decide yes on both or no based on whatever reasons they come up with," he says. "I don't think one will hurt the other."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

Hillsborough transit tax, Children's Board votes both headed to ballot in 2016 08/02/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2014 9:37pm]
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