TAMPA — Some 51,000 people signed a petition to place a sales-tax hike for transportation on the Nov. 6 ballot, but many of the 17 people seeking seats on the Hillsborough County Commission say they’re still making up their minds.
Some candidates aren’t talking about it all.
Voters who might cast a ballot based on a candidate’s stand on the issue won’t get any help from District 5 contenders Victor Crist, a Republican county commissioner hoping to switch seats, or Democrat Mariella Smith. They’re still deciding.
Another sitting commissioner, Stacy White, said he opposes the ballot measure but only after the question was put to him repeatedly. A third commissioner, Ken Hagan, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
The proposal would raise the county sales tax by a penny to eight cents on the dollar for the next 30 years to pay for transportation improvements. The measure earned a place on the ballot through a citizen’s initiative led by the group All For Transportation.
Less than two weeks before the Aug. 28 primary decides party nominees, many County Commission candidates appear wary of commenting on a plan on the heels of two failed measures — an aborted Go Hillsborough referendum that commissioners refused to place before voters in 2016 and a 2010 referendum that they did put on the ballot only to see it rejected by voters.
The 2010 proposal enjoyed support in urban areas including Tampa, but was sunk by opposition from unincorporated areas such as east Hillsborough.
One campaign tactic among commission candidates this time around: Blame commissioners past and present for inaction on transportation.
"First of all, I think it’s an indictment of the utter failure of our County Commission to have addressed our transportation problems — the fact that citizens have had to take the matter into their own hands," said Smith, running for one of the seven-member commission’s three countywide seats.
But when asked for her stand, Smith demurred, noting she has to go after votes "countywide."
"I’m still listening. I’m not coming down on one side or the other yet," she said.
Smith’s opponent in the Aug. 28 primary, Elvis Piggott, is also undecided but didn’t have much good to say about the plan. It doesn’t do enough for places like East Tampa, Piggott said.
"I want developers to pay their fair share before we make taxpayers pay anything," he said.
The sales tax hike would raise a projected $280 million in its first year, with 45 percent of the proceeds going to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit for bus service and other mass transit and the remainder divided among Hillsborough County and the three city governments for road improvements.
Angel S. Urbina Capo, running against Victor Crist in the District 5 GOP primary, said he opposes the plan.
Crist, explaining his indecision, said in an email that he is concerned what impact the tax would have on economic development, tourism and public education.
"What impact would this additional one percent sales tax increase have on our school district’s ability to generate needed dollars for our schools in the future?" Crist wrote.
Joe Kotvas, who is running without party affiliation in District 5 and will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, supports it.
"We’ve got to do something," Kotvas said. "We’ve got to start somewhere."
In District 7, which also has crowded primaries, the battle lines are clearer. Republicans oppose a tax increase, Democrats say the county needs more money to solve its transit woes.
On the Republican side, Aakash Patel and Todd Marks said they don’t want Hillsborough to wear the label of the highest-taxed county in the state. An 8 percent sales tax would tie Hillsborough as highest in the state with Liberty County west of Tallahassee.
Democrats Ray Chiaramonte, Mark Nash, Kimberly Overman support the plan. A fourth Democrat, Sky U. White, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority, said the All For Transportation plan isn’t flawless.
"But the perfect is the enemy of the good," Chiaramonte said.
He’s concerned about the lack of detail in the initiative and the fact that it may have crowded out chances to raise more revenue for county schools, but he likes many provisions — including the chance to expand the Compete Streets concept of making roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
"I don’t feel we’re in danger of doing anything stupid," he said.
Nash is enthusiastic about the plan. He says the voters he talks to are eager for the measure to pass.
"This is the hot topic," he said. "The public sees that there is a need and this is an opportunity for us to invest a little more in our future."
Overman says she receives mostly positive feedback on the campaign trail, too.
"The only people who are opposed are the people who don’t want to pay taxes for anything," she said. "A majority of the people I come into contact with know we have to invest in transit."
Green Party candidate Kim "Klarc" O’Connor didn’t respond to a request for comment.
White, running in District 4, said the tax hike would give too much power to a citizens advisory committee and tar Hillsborough as the county with the highest sales tax.
He’ll vote against it, White finally said during an interview, after elaborating on his support for citizens’ right to petition the government. "I guess that’s an okay way to couch it," he said.
White’s general election opponent, Democrat Andrew Davis, says he’s still making up his mind.
"I wish we’d raised impact fees on developers like we should have years ago," Davis said.
In District 2, Hagan’s primary opponent, Chris Paradies, opposes the tax hike, saying the county already has enough money to pursue streetlight improvements and other less expensive fixes.
The winner of the Hagan-Paradies contest will face Democrat Angela Birdsong in November.
When asked for her take, Birdsong didn’t hesitate.
"I’m 100 percent for it," she said.