Hillsborough County voters embraced critical investments Tuesday in public schools and transportation that will improve the quality of life and enhance the county’s economic competitiveness. This is wonderful news for residents and businesses, and it’s a powerful vote of confidence that reflects the ambition of a growing region.
The school tax referendum sailed through despite surfacing only months ago and its supporters having to campaign on a shoestring budget. The support reflects the public’s acknowledgement of the crisis in the physical condition of campuses across the county -- and the pride and ownership voters have in their public school system. The half-cent tax, for 10 years, will generate $131 million annually and pay for a range of capital improvements, including new air conditioners and roofs, new safety and security systems, and upgrades in technology.
Many voters were understandably torn, blaming the Florida Legislature for not adequately funding education which the Florida Constitution declares "a paramount duty of the state." But voters were also pragmatic; they realized lawmakers won’t provide any help soon, and they would not accept their children suffering the consequences in stifling classrooms with no air conditioning and in unhealthy conditions. School Superintendent Jeff Eakins deserves credit for his whirlwind tour over a two-month period to get the tax on the public's radar. Officials also were wise to itemize 1,785 specific projects the tax would fund and to publicize a school-by-school list on the district's web site.
The transportation referendum was the county's fourth major attempt in 20 years to address its chronic traffic congestion. This plan succeeded because it was robust, well-rounded and forward-looking enough to attract urban and suburban voters. The one-cent sales tax will generate $9 billion or more over its 30-year life, making a healthy dent in the county's $13 billion transportation backlog. And there is something for everybody, from wider intersections and safer streets to new bus connections throughout the county. The new tax revenue will speed up road and bridge improvements, and it will serve as seed money to attract new state and federal funding for mass transit. This victory reflects what's possible when the business community and civic activists fill the leadership void.
Going forward, the school district should be as transparent in spending the money as it was in identifying the needs. It should also examine whether it has the staffing and expertise to ably manage the flood of contract work about to get under way.
Meanwhile, transportation advocates also should ensure that local officials spend the money as intended, and that the transportation improvements work hand-in-hand with smarter land development policies. The county got into this hole by allowing unchecked sprawl, and there's no sense perpetuating that mistake with a new funding source.
This was a tough environment for two significant local tax increases. Hillsborough voters should be proud of stepping up and taking responsibility for investing in two core public services that define a community's priorities and its quality of life.