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.
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.
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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."
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 email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.