A recurring theme emerged in Thursday's debate over a proposed sales tax referendum to pay for new commuter rail, buses and roads in Hillsborough County: distrust in government.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham played that card repeatedly in a debate before roughly 100 residents of Sun City Center.
"When's the last time you entered a contract with government and they honored the terms?" Higginbotham asked in one form or another repeatedly.
Audience members took his cue, peppering his fellow commissioner and transit tax advocate, Mark Sharpe with questions along the same tack.
"I'll believe it when I see it," said resident Uta Kuhn, to assertions that the tax will be spent as planned and the rail system won't encounter costly overruns.
Sharpe attempted to assure the audience that the proposal has undergone careful analysis. Financial projections have been vetted by groups that have lead other transit initiatives around the country. Those behind the effort here have taken pains to ensure they won't have to come back to voters for more money in the future, he said.
Sharpe said spending on the transit part in particular will be overseen by each government in Hillsborough County, HART and a citizen committee of accounting and transit experts.
"I realize distrust of government is at an all time high," Sharpe said. "Do you just throw up your hands and say you're not even going to try?"
The County Commission is poised to approve ballot language for the transit initiative next month. It will ask voters in November if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for a new commuter rail system, a doubling of the county's bus fleet and various road projects.
Higginbotham argued Thursday that advocates have downplayed the significance of the tax increase, emphasizing the trivial sounding penny increase but not its cumulative effect. He repeatedly noted that the proposed increase is a 14 percent hike to the sales tax (from a current 7 cents), which would be the highest rate in the state and take up to $200 million annually out of the local economy.
Based on questions from a dozen or so speakers, Higginbotham addressed a sympathetic crowd. But there was opposition.
Resident Bill Hodges said many people actually want to see improvements to the county's transportation network.
"We hear, 'No, no, no — don't trust the government,' " he said. "Well, tell me what the plan is."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]