TAMPA — The long, protracted fight over how to pay for much-needed road work in Hillsborough County appears close to resolution.
County commissioners on Wednesday voted 6-1 to advance a proposal that would for the next decade set aside one-third of future growth in property and sales tax collections for transportation.
Commissioner Les Miller was the holdout.
"We need to commit. Commit," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has spearheaded this plan. "It's very important — No. 1: transportation."
In all, it is estimated the measure would raise about $820 million for roads, bridges and sidewalk improvements, and without raising taxes.
If it sounds too good to be true, the county staff warned it might be.
Dedicating that much of future budgets to transportation could mean significant cuts to other county services — to the tune of about $24 million a year — at a time when the county is bringing in about 30,000 new residents a year.
"The pie is only so big. We don't have a new revenue source; it's an existing revenue source," said county budget director Tom Fesler. "It would lead to some tough decisions that need to be made."
But Commissioner Stacy White, who led the effort to kill a sales tax surcharge for transportation, was troubled by that assertion.
"If growth is really a good thing, and growth really pays for itself, why is a guy like me that's lived here my whole life being told that a tax hike is the only way to accommodate growth that I didn't ask for?" White said. "What we're telling the overwhelming majority of our citizens is that they get to pay more in taxes for the privilege of living in a growing community, and I don't think that's right."
Still, staffers and financial and bond advisers successfully moved Murman and White away from a proposal to establish an ordinance that mandated 33 percent of future growth must go into transportation. That could have jeopardized the county's ability to pay off debt obligations or keep up payments to reserves, they said, causing bond rating agencies to downgrade the county from its coveted triple-A status.
Instead, commissioners asked the county attorney to draft a board policy. That way, when the county administrator releases the annual recommended budget, it must include those extra dollars for transportation.
The difference may seem marginal. It would still set a baseline year, and a third of tax revenue brought in above the baseline would go to transportation. It would potentially bring in the same amount to fix roads and intersections, and other county services could face the same cuts.
However, unlike an ordinance, which a future board would have to vote to overturn, commissioners could vote to make tweaks to the budget before it passes to ensure debts are paid or take action if there's another recession.
That flexibility to maneuver appeased the finance gurus, and won over Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist, who said they were concerned the ordinance could hurt the county's fiscal standing.
Murman relented as long as there is "teeth" to prevent the fund from being raided. A final vote could come at the Sept. 8 commission meeting.
"This will test our fiscal priorities and policy decisions going forward," she said.
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.