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Hillsborough administrator Mike Merrill apologizes to 'blindsided' commissioners for new transportation strategy

TAMPA -- Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill apologized to county commissioners Wednesday for publicly floating a one-cent sales tax hike to fund transportation projects without their knowledge.

Merrill was quickly forgiven. Nevertheless, the situation underscores how delicate of a political issue the transportation tax increase remains for the seven commissioners, five of which are Republicans who have stood against new taxes for transit in the past, and for the county, which failed miserably in its attempt to pass a transportation tax increase in 2010.

Here's the background on the mini kerfuffle: The county announced Monday that it was considering a full-cent referendum again after months of building public support for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund transit and road projects throughout Hillsborough. Merrill and county staff had hoped putting the larger tax increase back on the table would show residents what projects would not be feasible with the smaller tax hike.

Merrill said Wednesday that the regional transportation work group weighing the various proposals has not formally endorsed the half-cent option yet, so he thought that meant a penny increase was still under consideration. As was the case, he felt it should be included in community meetings now underway to gather public input, and he apparently didn't inform commissioners that he planned to do so.

Commissioners said they felt blindsided by Merrill's announcement earlier this week and that they received an earful from constituents for the mixed messages. Commissioner Victor Crist admonished Merrill for acting unilaterally without briefing him first.

"We have to keep staff in check," Crist said. "Sometimes they get a little overzealous, and they like to go out there and make decisions on their own."

Merrill said he stood by the decision to put the one-cent sales tax back in play but apologized to commissioners "for not giving you proper heads up."

"I can understand how you felt blindsided," Merrill said.