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HART prepares for referendum on light rail

TAMPA — Anticipating that voters in November 2010 will consider a 1-cent sales tax to help pay for public transportation projects, the county bus agency is seeking marketing firms experienced with new rail lines.

But officials with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit are vowing that marketing materials won't violate a new state law that prohibits government agencies from using public money to try to influence voters.

State Sen. Charlie Justice, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, crafted the legislation after Pinellas County used tax dollars to persuade voters to support a 2007 referendum on a one-penny sales tax for the county.

"I'm sure people will be looking at every word we write trying to divine some 'vote for this' language, but I assure you they will not find it," said HART spokesman Ed Crawford. "We will not get involved in any of the political side of a campaign. That's something that will have to be totally in someone else's court.''

Crawford said any marketing materials related to rail will focus on explaining the proposal to build an 18-mile line from the University of South Florida to Tampa International Airport.

"People need to understand what this is about. If you're going to vote for something, the government, us, Hillsborough County, whatever, owes you the ability to know what you're voting for," Crawford said. "That's not the same as asking you to vote for it."

A request for proposals from marketing firms was originally issued in May. It explains to companies interested in the contract, which is worth more than $450,000, that voters may be asked to decide on the sales tax in November.

"Voter education and messaging will be key to a successful outcome and will be our focus for the next 18 months," says the background material.

The current contract, held by Ilium Associates of Bellevue, Wash., for three years, expires Sept. 30.

The rebidding process has been halted so the scope of the contract can be expanded to include requirements that companies have experience with new transit projects.

"We're going to expect them to be familiar with the subject so they can produce educational materials to help the public understand what this is all about," Crawford said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a member of the HART board, said that even though government can't promote the referendum, he can as an individual.

"That's what you do as a government official. You argue for or against, but you can't use public money for that," he said. "I'm going out and speaking every day."

Sharpe said he makes the case that the new tax would help boost the local economy.

"We historically have thought of transportation only as a way to move people around," he said.

"That's obviously very important. But the primary purpose of what we're trying to do is create new jobs, transit-oriented development, business opportunities. That's a completely different way of thinking about mobility."

Most likely, a subgroup of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which promotes regional economic development, will take the lead on a campaign to push the referendum, said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, one of the biggest supporters of the project.

"It will take an outside group because government cannot expend money," Iorio said. "We can give our opinion, but we cannot expend money."

County commissioners won't decide whether to put the referendum on the ballot until the fall. But Sharpe said it's not too soon to start informing the public about it.

"Some people have argued you wait until after the commission votes, but that doesn't make any sense," he said. "They need to let the commission know if they think it's a good idea or not."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

HART prepares for referendum on light rail 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 11:54pm]
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