TAMPA — Hillsborough County voters raised their sales tax to the highest in Florida on Tuesday to pay for billions of dollars in long-sought transportation improvements and for school repairs that reached crisis level this year.
The 30-year transportation measure will add a penny on the dollar to the sales tax and raise about $276 million per year. Bolstered by a $4 million campaign war chest, the tax passed easily, reversing years of failed efforts by elected leaders and transit advocates to ease congestion on county roads and fund a more robust mass-transit system.
Voters were equally enthusiastic about a 10-year, half-cent sales tax that will provide an injection of funds to Hillsborough County Schools, which needs an estimated $3 billion to fund school construction, repairs and debt repayments. Much of the money will go toward air conditioner replacements and fixing leaky roofs.
"This is extremely humbling," said Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins. "I'm very appreciative of the citizens here in Hillsborough County. They really sent a powerful message to students and teachers that they care."
The results mean the county's sales tax will rise from 7 to 8.5 percent effective Jan. 1. A household with an income that's average for the county, around $55,000, will pay an extra $180 per year in taxes.
The campaign for the transportation tax was led by All for Transportation, a group of transit advocates frustrated at the failure of elected officials to tackle the county's estimated $9 billion backlog in road and transit projects.
That included witnessing the heavy defeat of the Moving Hillsborough Forward referendum in 2010 and a vote by the County Commission to keep the 2016 Go Hillsborough plan off the ballot.
All for Transportation took advantage of a rarely used citizens charter amendment process to take the issue out of elected leaders' hands.
Christina Barker, a leader of the citizens group, credited their success to a plan she said benefited the whole county. Most of the money from the tax will go toward roads, sidewalks and trails.
"This referendum passing and the support we saw in the community should make people rethink what's possible in Tampa Bay," Barker said. "We have done something that is historic. Now it's time to live up to the vision of what we can be."
Billed as a grass roots campaign, All for Transportation gained significant financial support from the business community. The $4 million raised for the campaign far exceeds the $1.5 million collected during the 2010 referendum and the $1 million raised for the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas campaign.
All for Transportation paid $700,000 to a professional petition gathering firm that gathered more than 50,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Its biggest backer was Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
Between personal donations and contributions from companies he is associated with, Vinik gave almost $700,000.
"This is not about one region; this is not about one mode of transit," Vinik said Tuesday night. "The people here have stepped up and decided to sacrifice and invest in the future of our county."
Other backers included philanthropist Frank Morsani, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and the region's three professional sports franchises.
The group's key message was that Hillsborough faced permanent gridlock without investment in roads and transit. Some 700,000 people are expected to move to the county in the next 30 years.
That message was hammered home in a barrage of mailers, TV advertisements and text messages. It also paid a company to hang flyers on doorknobs.
Opposition initially came from Americans for Prosperity, which for years was bankrolled by oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. The group was credited with helping defeat transit referendums around the country including one in Nashville earlier this year.
In Early October, Notaxfortracks.com formed a political committee to campaign against the tax. It has raised almost $135,000, including $70,000 in donations from East Hillsborough political activist Sam Rashid.
Leaders of the group claimed the proceeds from the tax would be spent mainly in Tampa and that it did not earmark funding for new roads.
They blasted the group's ties to Vinik, whom they claimed was backing the plan to benefit Water Street Tampa, the downtown real estate venture he is building around Amalie Arena with Cascade Investment, the private capital fund of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
"We're disappointed in the outcome but we got into this exactly one month out, understanding the challenge of this David vs. Goliath fight," said Karen Jaroch, group chairwoman. "Absentee ballots had already been mailed out and the billionaires bankrolling the campaign would provide our opponents with unlimited funds."
In contrast to the transportation tax, the schools campaign faced little organized opposition.
While other school districts around the state were successful in raising sales and property taxes, Hillsborough leaders worried they lacked credibility at a time when they were digging out of a severe budget imbalance.
They were pushed to action in August by the transportation initiative. The consensus was that, if voters approved that one percent sales surtax, there would be little appetite to approve another half-cent at a later date.
So the two initiatives ended up on the same ballot.
District staff made sure each school was promised at least $500,000 in improvements and created personalized materials for emails, banners and social media.
Eakins committed to a full calendar of school-based town hall meetings, chamber of commerce gatherings and radio interviews.
In those appearances, Eakins made a strong argument that in the decade since the recession began, the state has shortchanged school districts in capital funds. He said he has restored credibility by balancing the district budget, a process that meant eliminating nearly 2,000 jobs over the past three years.
Some audience members were so receptive they asked if they could raise their taxes even more.
Campaigning came from teachers, PTA organizations and the Alliance for Public Schools. In some neighborhoods, parents took children with them as they went door to door seeking support.
The campaign also was helped by nature: September in Tampa was the hottest on record, with widespread breakdowns in school air conditioning systems.