Hillsborough Commission won’t let lawsuit stop transportation tax

Commissioner Stacy White filed the lawsuit after voters approved the measure. He was rebuked by residents at Wednesday’s meeting.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White is suing local government agencies in line to receive revenue from a new transportation sales tax. He wants a judge to decide whether a citizens committee that will oversee the spending of the 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]
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White is suing local government agencies in line to receive revenue from a new transportation sales tax. He wants a judge to decide whether a citizens committee that will oversee the spending of the 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 December 5

TAMPA — It may now be the subject of a controversial lawsuit, but the Democrat-controlled Hillsborough County Commission made it clear Wednesday that it sees no reason to put the brakes on the voter-approved transportation sales tax.

THE BUZZ: Tom Lee opposed transportation tax. Now his wife is the judge in case against it.

Commissioners instructed county staff to start identifying road and sidewalk projects that could get started in 2019 thanks to the new revenue stream the 1-cent sales tax will generate, estimated to be $302 million per year.

They also want to see a selection process for picking members of a citizens oversight board that would oversee the spending of the new transportation sales tax and an inter-local agreement with the county’s three cities and bus agency detailing how they will work with that committee.

Those actions appeared to serve as a rebuke to Republican Commissioner Stacy White, who on Tuesday sued Hillsborough County, the county's three cities and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority on the grounds that the oversight committee usurps the authority of elected officials.

Critics believe White's lawsuit is a partisan attempt to derail a tax that the conservative opposed during the midterm campaign.

RELATED: Stacy White sues Hillsborough, cities to stop voter-approved transportation tax

While commissioners did not criticize White during Wednesday’s meeting, residents certainly did. They packed into the commission chambers during public comments and ripped the East County Republican, accusing him of trying to thwart the will of the 57 percent of voters who approved the measure in November.

“It’s a public disgrace that a sitting commissioner would oppose the will of the people of Hillsborough County,” said Tampa community activist Gerard White, who voted for the tax. “I want this commission to use every avenue in your power to fight for what the people have voted for.”

Members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Emerge Tampa Bay also called on the commission to take action to ensure that what voters passed is implemented.

Only one person spoke out in support of White came from Pinellas County. Tom Rask is a longtime critic of mass transit.

"It is important the county protect its authority," he said.

What you need to know: Hillsborough transportation tax.

White said that if a judge rules that the charter amendment is legal, he’ll be willing to take the necessary steps to allow the county to implement the tax.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said staff have already identified $36 million worth of road, sidewalk and intersection projects that it could soon put out for contract.

The charter amendment requires the establishment of 13-member oversight committee to ensure the tax is being spent as promised. It sets 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.

It gives authority to the oversight committee to ensure that proposed spending plans submitted by Hillsborough County, the transit authority 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.

Merrill said the county’s legal staff have met with counterparts from those other agencies and that there is general agreement on how the oversight process will work. Citizens on the committee will not be able to advocate for one project over another, he said.

"The oversight committee’s role is to take the plans we submit after (commissioners) approve them and make sure the projects proposed fit within the five categories specified within the charter amendment," he said. "That is the extent of their role."

White has told the Tampa Bay Times that he is paying for the lawsuit with his personal money, not taxpayer dollars, and retained retired appellate court Judge Chris Altenbernd of Tampa to represent him. But defending the suit will still cost public dollars.

County Attorney Christine Beck told commissioners that the county was forced to hire outside counsel to defend the lawsuit because it would be a legal conflict for her to take a case since she represents clients on both sides, namely White and the other six commissioners.

The county hired the firm of Bryant Miller Olive to handle the case. It was not known if the firm will represent the other government agencies named in the suit, of if they must also retain their own counsel.

The new sales tax takes effect Jan. 1. Beck said all parties should agree to expedite the case so that it can be quickly resolved.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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