Thanks to the slow economy, road work in Hillsborough County is coming in under budget. Now Commissioner Jim Norman wants to pass those savings on to taxpayers. It's too bad he's focused on political games and not on making the choices that could strengthen the county financially and save taxpayers real money in the long run.
Norman's idea is so flawed his colleagues should not take it seriously. For one thing, the road work budget comes from gasoline and sales taxes. What's fair about using that money, which comes from residents and visitors alike, to lower the property tax bills for homeowners? Attorneys for the county are researching whether such an arrangement would even be legal. County officials also do not know how much money would be involved. But the sums discussed — about $20 per household — are a blip in the overall financial picture.
It makes more sense to capitalize on the downturn in construction to make a dent in at least $1-billion worth of unfunded road needs. Or better yet, put the money in reserves. The county could easily use an extra $5-million or so next year for capital work and equipment should the slowdown continue in real estate and other vital sectors of the economy.
But this proposal puts short-term political considerations ahead of any development strategy. It is no surprise that some residents want a rebate, although they may be surprised by the modest amount. But the commission could save several times as much by making smarter decisions with its job-creation efforts, giving mass transit a bigger share of the transportation dollars now going to roads and pushing growth to areas where services already exist.
A new regional transportation agency is only months away from unveiling a plan for a coordinated mass transit network. While the money involved in Norman's proposal would not go far, committing it for buses and even rail would show the commission was interested in making more efficient use of the county's transportation dollars. That — not a rebate — could give these Republican board members the chance to actually claw back toward fiscal conservatism.