The county commissioner faces heated criticism over his backing of a new transit tax.
Published Jan. 27, 2010

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe tried to sell coffee to the tea party crowd Tuesday.

Sharpe was the pro side of a debate over a proposed transit tax initiative that goes before voters in November. His audience was the Tampa 912 Project, a local chapter of one of the national groups that have organized over the past year in protest to government bailouts and health care reform.

Things went downhill fast.

"You vote for it, Mark, and I'm voting you out," said Gary McEuen, an unemployed carpenter from North Tampa, from the audience of better than 150. "Take that message back to your friends, too."

"Fired" and "no" were popular words for those in the audience.

"I will walk, I will ride a bike, I'll even crawl to get the debt load off our children," said Kevin Wright, a small business owner from Wesley Chapel.

Sharpe, a Republican, squared off against David Caton, the executive director of the Florida Family Association who is best known for crusading against public nudity, but has taken an active role in fighting the proposed transit tax.

Hillsborough County commissioners havetentatively approved asking voters in November if they want to raise the sales tax one cent to pay for a new rail system, buses and road work. Sharpe has been the leading advocate for the initiative.

He presented his case: Rail will encourage economic development and give commuters an alternative to crowded roadways the county can't afford to widen.

With a nod to his audience, he said supporting the initiative was not an easy decision, and came after three years of study. He said future generations will condemn today's leaders if they fail to address the looming logjam.

"I believe this is the right thing to do," Sharpe said, admitting it could cost him in the next election. "I'm willing to live with it."

Caton highlighted his main stump points, which he illustrated with a prop - a remote-control Ferrari sports car. He said for the price of rail, the county could buy two of the real thing for each person who will actually use the new system, based on the $180 million the tax is expected to raise annually.

Factor in likely cost overruns and rosy ridership projections, as demonstrated in other cities with rail, and the cost per rider goes up exponentially, he said. Poor people will pay a disproportionate share of their income on the tax, which will divert money that might be spent on Hillsborough's ailing small businesses.

"Right now is the worst time possible to be asking families to give up money," Caton said.

His biggest applause came when he urged the audience not to let politicians say they only approved letting voters choose.If the question is on the ballot, he said, the public, steered by a complicit news media, will pass it.

"There are a lot of stupid voters out there who will fall prey to the Tampa Tribune and St. Pete Times," Caton said.