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Hillsborough elected officials divided on timing of potential transit tax

TAMPA — Expected to bring clarity to when voters will be asked to approve a sales tax for transportation projects, elected officials from throughout Hillsborough County instead made it more murky Tuesday — differing over when a referendum has the best chance of passing.

The policy group, which includes the seven county commissioners and mayors of the three cities, listened to a proposal from County Administrator Mike Merrill to elicit feedback from the public on a list of hundreds of transportation projects including light rail that could be helped by a 1-cent sales tax.

But Tuesday's proposal varied in one big way from a presentation Merrill made in an advance briefing to reporters late last month. While that briefing focused on laying the groundwork to pass a tax-for-transportation referendum in 2016, it became clear Tuesday that elected officials at the meeting were divided on what year would be best to pose the question.

Mike Suarez, a Tampa City Council member and chairman of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority, drew heat in June for telling the Tampa Bay Times editorial board he thought 2016 would be too soon.

But County Commissioner Victor Crist echoed similar concerns Tuesday, saying he favored waiting until 2018 to ready the public and explore more funding options.

"Timing is crucial," said Crist, who faces re-election this fall. "I'm not sure we have enough time to sell this, and I'm not sure we have time to really do the leg work that needs to be done to generate the voter buy-in to get this passed."

Crist suggested watching how a similar referendum progresses in Pinellas County. If it fails this November, waiting until 2018 would let Hillsborough leaders make changes to improve the chance that their own referendum — which would help finance roads, buses, walkways and rail — would pass.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who was re-elected this year without opposition, brought up concerns over being able to sort out legal requirements.

"In a perfect world sooner is better," Hagan said. "But I think there are some specific and critical issues, particularly legal ones, that require us to be methodical to ensure we get them right."

Both Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, neither who face election this year, spoke in favor of putting the tax question before voters as soon as possible, with 2016 being the goal.

"Life is about making an effort and not being afraid to fail," said Sharpe, who is leaving the commission due to term limits. "I don't think we've rushed. I think we've been a little slow in acting. … HART's going to run out of money. And they may well run out of money while we talk and decide what we're going to do."

Though elected officials remained divided on when to put the tax on the ballot, they agreed unanimously to allow county staffers to spend this fall talking with voters and learning what transportation issues they see.

Once staffers collect that input, Merrill said, then the county will be better equipped to engage in discussions about what a comprehensive transportation plan would look like, how it would be paid for, when a referendum would be on the ballot and who would oversee these projects.

Officials decided to table the subject of how such projects would be governed. Transforming the HART board into a super-agency to oversee it all has been proposed, but details are still under discussion.

At Tuesday's meeting, no speaker questioned the possibility of a tax-for-transportation referendum going on some future ballot — the question was when.

"It's unlikely that it will be a unanimous vote by the County Commission," Hagan said. "But I do not know anyone that does not believe there are four votes on the County Commission to place this referendum on the ballot."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

Hillsborough elected officials divided on timing of potential transit tax 08/12/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 10:59pm]
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