TAMPA — County Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to invalidate a 30-year, $15.8 billion transportation sales tax that voters approved in November.
The 28-page suit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court named 10 defendants, including the county, the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, and the county clerk.
If a judge sides with White, who represents eastern and southern Hillsborough County, the 1 percent sales tax hike approved by 57 percent of the voters and set to take effect Jan. 1 might never be collected.
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The lawsuit says a number of problems make the tax unenforceable:
• It restricts commissioners from allocating money collected through the tax — a responsibility protected under Florida law.
• The powers given to a citizens oversight committee set up under the referendum are unauthorized by state law.
• The summary presented to voters on the Nov. 6 ballot did not disclose certain issues and is therefore unlawful and invalid.
“I think I’m doing this county a service by asking these questions early on the front end before we have to start collecting these tax revenues,” said White, a Republican.
But supporters of the referendum, including two fellow county commissioners and three Tampa mayoral candidates, blasted him for filing the suit.
“I think this is a lot of grandstanding,” said attorney Brian Willis, a leader with the All For Transportation referendum that put the amendment on the ballot. “We hope nobody is going to be fooled or delay these important improvements that voters are already demanding.”
White said he decided to file the lawsuit because of concerns raised by stakeholders and local lawyers that the referendum might violate Florida law. The lawsuit specifically questions whether a new citizens committee that will oversee how the tax is spent usurps the authority of elected officials.
“The oversight committee essentially has veto power over the County Commission,” White said.
Willis said the oversight committee isn’t set up to approve projects, but to make sure the tax proceeds are divided appropriately among each local agency and between transit and road projects.
“The voters approved the percentages they wanted spent in these buckets,” Willis said.
The complaint also says the referendum unlawfully prevents county commissioners from using proceeds of the tax to add lanes to existing roads and build new streets. White said the ballot language led voters to believe these were a priority in the referendum, when, in fact, the measure prohibits spending on them.
“I think there are a number of people who may have voted on something that they really were not aware of the nuances of.”
All for Transportation disagrees, saying close to 20 percent of the tax proceeds allocated for roads can be spent on new ones.
Tampa mayoral candidate and former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said he is concerned that the referendum might violate Florida state law. It’s best to sort out any legal issues now rather than later, Turanchik said.
“I would be very doubtful that the tax would be struck down,” Turanchik said. “I would hope not. People voted for it. But maybe the mechanics of it need to be cleaned up.”
White declined to comment on whether his intent was to overturn the tax entirely or simply to reorganize the oversight board. Instead, he said, his goal was to make sure the county was legally compliant with state law.
County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the referendum language was vetted closely and voters clearly spoke. “This is a waste of taxpayers’ money and that’s a shame,” Overman said.
White said he is paying for the lawsuit with personal money, not taxpayer dollars, and retained retired appellate court Judge Chris Altenbernd of Tampa to represent him.
Democrat and County Commission Chairman Les Miller said, “This is just a way to stop this sales tax from being implemented and is going against the will of the people.”
Tampa mayoral candidates Harry Cohen, David Straz and Jane Castor each criticized White for filing the lawsuit and urged him to reconsider.
“Commissioner Stacey White is doing taxpayers a disservice,” Straz wrote. “Voters made it clear in November the desire to fund transportation.”
Cohen said he was disappointed in White’s “decision to ignore the will of the voters.”
Castor said, “This is exactly what people hate about politics.”
The referendum requires the creation of a 13-member oversight committee to reassure voters that politicians won’t be able to spend the money on pet projects. It also spells out how much of the tax can be spent on congestion, road safety, and bike and pedestrian projects.
Leaders of All for Transportation said they are confident the amendment will stand up to legal scrutiny.
“Why does Commissioner White want less oversight,” Willis said. “What is he afraid of and why would he not want citizens watching how their money is spent?”
Times staff writers Christopher O’Donnell and Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.