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Report: Commissioner will sue to stop Hillsborough transit tax

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White told 10NEWS WTSP he plans to sue the county and ask a judge to decide whether a citizens committee that will oversee the spending of the new sales transportation sales tax violates state law by usurping the authority of elected officials. The tax was approved by 57 percent of Hillsborough voters on Nov. 6. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Dec. 4, 2018

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White was one of the biggest critics of the one-cent transportation sales tax that voters overwhelmingly approved in November.

Now, a TV station is reporting that White plans to go to court to try and stop the three-decade, $15.8 billion tax from ever being collected.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough sales tax for transportation sailing toward easy passage

TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

The District 4 commissioner told 10News WTSP that he plans to file a lawsuit against Hillsborough County on Tuesday and ask a judge to rule whether a new citizens committee that will oversee how the tax is spent usurps the authority of elected officials including county commissioners.

White could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Republican commissioner's move may spark the first partisan skirmish of the newly elected commission, which has a Democratic majority for the first time since 2004. Three of the four Democrats on the board were vocal supporters of the tax, which was approved as a county charter amendment by 57 percent of voters.

Democrat and County Commission Chair Les Miller said White's lawsuit was a blatant attempt to thwart a tax that voters approved by a clear margin.

If White had concerns about the amendment, he should have asked the county attorney to give a legal opinion long ago, Miller said. He also pointed out that since White is suing the county, it will not be able to use staff attorneys to litigate the matter — the county will have to waste taxpayer money to hire outside counsel.

"I've never been sued by my colleagues," he said. "This is just a way to stop this sales tax from being implemented and is going against the will of the people."

RELATED: Here's how money from a sales tax hike would improve transportation in Hillsborough

The transportation sales tax was placed on the ballot by All for Transportation, a citizens group that hired a professional petition gathering firm to collect more 50,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the Nov. 6 election. The group received about $3.9 million in donations from big backers including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Tampa philanthropist Frank Morsani and the region's professional sports franchises.

The charter amendment requires the establishment of 13-member oversight committee to reassure voters that politicians would not be able to spend the tax on pet projects. It also set percentages for how much of the tax — estimated to bring in about $300 million in 2019 — can be spent on congestion, road safety, and bike and pedestrian projects.

RELATED: Three weeks before election, tax foes organize to fight transportation measure

The oversight committee is authorized to ensure that proposed spending plans submitted by Hillsborough County and the cites of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City meet that criteria.

If two-thirds of the committee find that an agency is not following the charter, it can instruct the clerk of the court to withhold the funds.

Members of the committee are to be appointed by commissioners, the mayors of the three cities and the governing board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority, among others.

Leaders of All for Transportation said they are confident the amendment will stand up to legal scrutiny. White's lawsuit will be a waste of taxpayer dollars, they said.

"Voters demanded safer roads, reduced traffic congestion and expanded transit options so that everyone in the county, no matter where they live, benefits," said Brian Willis, an attorney and one of the leaders of All for Transportation. "Why does Commissioner White want less oversight, what is he afraid of and why would he not want citizens watching how their money is spent?"

Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate Harry Cohen sent out a statement late Monday blasting White:

"I am disappointed in Commissioner White's decision to ignore the will of voters, who spoke clearly in November, and urge him to reconsider a losing choice that will waste taxpayer dollars on litigation when those funds could be used, instead, to make our sidewalks safer for children walking to school."

The county commission could weigh in on White's lawsuit as soon as Wednesday, the first full meeting of the new commission since the election.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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