Advertisement
  1. Hillsborough

In close vote, Hillsborough's transit tax will stick to the plan

Traffic is diverted to southbound Telecom Parkway near the area where a cavern formed from a broken main underneath the bridge in the westbound lane of E Fletcher Avenue in Tampa in 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |    Times]
Traffic is diverted to southbound Telecom Parkway near the area where a cavern formed from a broken main underneath the bridge in the westbound lane of E Fletcher Avenue in Tampa in 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Jul. 17

TAMPA — County commissioners voted Wednesday along party lines to reinstate the spending restrictions on Hillsborough's new one-cent transportation sales tax.

Those restrictions were struck down by a circuit judge last month, after County Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the sales tax approved by 57 percent of voters in November. The judge ruled that citizen-initiated sales tax was valid, but eliminated the attached provisions that ensured how the money would be spent.

Instead, the judge left it up to the elected commissioners, not voters, to determine how the funds would be used. That decision opened the door for the county to use the new tax to pay for a growing list of sorely-needed but unfunded projects.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough wrestles with how to spend money from its new transportation tax

But instead of going down that path, a majority of commissioners followed chairman Les Miller's lead in a narrow 4-3 vote to instruct county attorneys to draft an ordinance mimicking the spending plan approved by voters. It was the first step in codifying the referendum's language into county law. First, there needs to be two public hearings held on the new ordinance and then a final vote.

Miller noted that the commission's conservative members want to redirect money from a tax they had always opposed. In 2016, White and Commissioner Sandy Murman voted against putting a transportation referendum on that year's ballot, so voters didn't have a choice. In 2018, All For Transportation organized a petition-driven referendum that circumvented the commission and put the measure directly to voters.

"Let me take you down memory lane," Miller said. "Twice this board of county commissioners had the opportunity to put this on the ballot, and twice it was voted down because those who voted it down said, 'If I vote for this, I'm raising taxes.' You weren't afraid of raising taxes. You didn't want it to go on the ballot because you were afraid it was going to pass.

"So, the citizens of this county, All For Transportation, had the wherewithal and the cojones to put it on the ballot and it passed by 57 percent of the vote. That's what happened. We should be adhering to what they said."

Miller was joined in passing the measure by commissioners Pat Kemp, Kim Overman and Mariella Smith. Ken Hagan supported the failed referendum in 2016, but on Wednesday joined Murman and White in voting against restoring the original spending parameters.

"All For Transportation deserves credit for their private-sector driven initiative," Hagan said. "However, we are being short sighted if we do not recognize that there are limitations with this initiative. And it's incumbent on this board to improve the plan in the best interest of all of our residents."

County Administrator Mike Merrill also hoped the commission would use some of the new tax revenue to pay for previously-scheduled road projects that are now funded by the county's dwindling reserve of property taxes. The proposed 2020 budget calls for using $31 million from the transportation tax to pay for a backlog of road needs meant to be funded by the general budget.

Merrill said the county should do that every year to reduce the budget deficit and free funds to address a backlog of other needs, such as expanding fire service.

He said the county has other promises to live up, not just the ones made in the transportation referendum. In 2017 the commission voted to spend $812 million to address long-ignored transportation needs over a 10-year period.

For the past three years "every time we talked about a budget we told the board we have problems in our unincorporated fund and it's not sustainable ...," Merrill said. "The problem is here in our laps and we have to deal with it. We have to find a way to deliver public safety and other quality of life services."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Judge: Hillsborough's transportation tax is legal, but spending allocations and oversight committee are not

If the ordinance's allocations are approved by the commission, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would again be guaranteed 45 percent of the tax revenue to expand bus service and build a new transit system. The referendum also set the exact percentage of the tax that the county and its three cities can spend on specific transportation projects.

And because of the way the charter amendment creating the tax was written, those restrictions would only allow the county to spend 15 percent on adding lane capacity to roads in overburdened areas like south and east Hillsborough County.

Public comments revealed tension over the tax has not abated. Some reiterated the point made in White's lawsuit that the referendum campaign was misleading. They want the commission to spend more money on the road needs of the unincorporated county.

"The language that was used was deceitful, deceptive and a lie," said Tom Gaitens, a south county resident who was among the more than 30 people who signed up to speak for and against reinstating the spending restrictions.

But others, including Rick Fernandez, chair of the Tampa Heights Civic Association's Transportation Committee, told commissioners it would be disingenuous for them to assume voters didn't understand what they voted for.

"I know what I voted for," he said. "My friends and neighbors in Tampa Heights know very well what it is they voted for."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. The victim in Friday's shooting at a Tampa police officer's home has been identified as 15-year-old Bradley Hulett of Lithia. Hulett is pictured here on the Facebook page of Operation Lotus, a Hillsborough County non-profit that supports families coping with tragedy and is raising money for Hulett's family. [Facebook]
    Bradley Hulett, 15, was described as sweet, intelligent and charismatic.
  2. Off-duty detention Deputy Leighton Ricketts, 32, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol early Saturday morning. A four-year veteran of the Sheriff’s office, Ricketts was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending the results of an internal affairs investigation. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office] [ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  HCSO]
    Detention Deputy Leighton Ricketts, a four-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending the results of an internal affairs investigation.
  3. Jeremy Sutliff drags a freshly cut hop plant over to the harvesting machine at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    Researchers are trying to make a variety of hops suitable to Florida’s climate.
  4. Rocky, Sally Mae, Marsali and Paisley are available for adoption at area shelters. [Times]
    Shelter pet offerings throughout Tampa Bay
  5. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. [Times]
    “With guns you always want to assume they’re loaded,” said a Hillsborough sheriff’s captain.
  6. Eric Anthony Hall, 42, faces charges of felon in possession of a firearm. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
    The man who rented the semi-automatic pistol his companion was shooting faces charges of felon in possession of a firearm.
  7. Joshua Leon Carmona is accused in the 2017 fatal beating of his mother, Tahirih Lua D'Angelo. He faces trial in January 2020. [Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office]
    Joshua Carmona is accused of beating his mother to death in their Riverview home in 2017. New documents shed light on why the crime may have occurred.
  8. Roy Dean, 42, of Tampa has been charged in the November shooting death of 47-year-old Alex Stephens. [Pasco County Sheriff's Office]
    Roy Ennice Dean III told police he was upset after he’d been suckerpunched by Alex Stephens, who became famous for another shooting, this one over Facebook.
  9. Katie Golden, left, died from a drug overdose in 2017. Titan Goodson, right, is accused of manslaughter in her death. [Family photo | Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
    Titan Goodson stands accused in the 2017 heroin overdose death of Plant High senior Katie Golden. In an unusual trial, a jury will decide if he is responsible.
  10. In addition to offering groceries through Prime Now, Amazon has just launched Amazon Fresh in Tampa Bay. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
    The online retailer branches out beyond the Whole Foods’ organic products it already offers.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement