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Mayor unwraps tax wish list

If voters add a half-cent to Hillsborough County's sales tax, the city of Tampa would get $42-million in the first five years. Wednesday, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco produced his wish list for how to use it:

Better roads. More police cars and fire engines. Improved softball fields, parks and gymnasiums.

Those projects and others made up the plan Greco's office released late Wednesday for spending the first five years' worth of revenues from the proposed 30-year sales tax increase going to a referendum Sept. 3.

As proposed, the largest part of the money would be spent on public safety, followed by public works and transportation, drainage, parks and recreation.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the list during a public hearing at 10 a.m. today, but Council Chairman Ronnie Mason said the list arrived so late Wednesday that he needs more time to study it.

"I don't think I'll be ready to vote on it," Mason said Wednesday evening. "I think I'll want another week to look at it and talk about it."

The list does not say how the city would spend its share of sales tax revenues after the first five years. Greco has described the referendum as "a pivotal step in helping this city meet" its long-range needs, but he could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Council member Scott Paine said he will ask whether Greco is talking about spending sales tax revenues on the same equipment the city already planned to buy with money from another source.

Last month, the City Council voted to borrow $23.6-million on the bond market and use the money to ease overcrowding at police headquarters, replace fire trucks and upgrade other city equipment.

For example, Paine noted that the bond issue was supposed to buy one aerial truck. Now he sees another truck on the sales-tax project list and wonders whether they are the same vehicle. "It appears to me that there is a degree of duplication between the two" lists, he said.

In any case, some observers predict the tax will face stiff opposition from disillusioned voters.

As he campaigns for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, former Tampa City Council member Perry C. Harvey Jr. says he finds a lot of people who are unhappy that public works projects and new schools have been linked to a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"The majority of people are not voting for it," said Harvey, who said he is not taking a position on the referendum. "They are quite angry because they tied everything together."

In 30 years, the sales tax increase would raise an estimated $2.7-billion, with most of it going to the School Board, Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

About 11 percent of the money, or $318.5-million, would pay for a new stadium. By comparison, the city's overall share is estimated at $442.8-million over the life of the tax.

Under the five-year plan released Wednesday, Greco plans to spend:

$9.75-million buying 283 police cruisers, 32 unmarked cars, a bomb truck, police boat, equipment to aid in forensic investigations, computer software and other equipment.

$4.17-million buying seven fire engines, seven rescue vehicles, one aerial truck and 14 other support vehicles.

$12.6-million planning for or improving S West Shore Boulevard, Commerce Street, S Howard Avenue, a major east-west road in the New Tampa area, resurfacing streets and laying new sidewalks.

$8.44-million planning for or making drainage improvements in and around Lemon Street, Cleveland Street, Columbus Drive at 57th Street, Curiosity Creek, Spanishtown Creek, the intersection of Armenia Avenue and Platt Street, the ramp from Bayshore Boulevard onto Davis Islands, and the intersection of Henderson Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway.

$4.37-million on playground equipment, renovation of the Seminole Recreation Center, acquisition of parkland, softball field improvements, renovations at Ballast Point Park, construction of Cypress Street beach park, cemetery improvements and expansion of De Soto Park.

$2.79-million adding a gymnasium and community center at Copeland Park, renovating the McGuire Center or the Police Athletic League facility at Rome and Sligh avenues, improving the Barksdale Community Center and renovating the Port Tampa Community Center.

In the weeks ahead, one City Council member suggests the tax's fortunes could rise or fall on how clearly officials are in explaining what they will do with the money.

"Malfunction Junction is a big one," said council member Bob Buckhorn, referring to a major county project to improve the interchange of Interstates 4 and 275. "But it's the little things that really make a difference in people's lives."

To vote for the tax, Buckhorn said recently, voters will have to understand what neighborhood improvements they will see as a result.

"Absent that," he said, "I think you're going to have a great difficulty winning this election."

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