TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith is hoping two weeks is long enough to change the mind of at least one of her fellow commissioners.
On April 1, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to defer any public hearing on a back-up transportation sales tax until 2021, citing the increased financial strain many families are facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote shocked Smith, one of four Democrats on the commission who has advocated for increased funding for transit, safety and road projects.
Perhaps most surprising, she said, is that the move to delay the tax came from chairman Les Miller, a supporter of the 2018 transportation sales tax and the commissioner who first proposed the back-up plan. Miller argued it may be necessary if the Florida Supreme Court strikes down the 2018 tax as unconstitutional.
Florida’s highest court canceled oral arguments as the state deals with the coronavirus pandemic. But justices are still holding deliberations and could issue a ruling at any point.
Hillsborough voters approved the one-cent tax. Anyone who buys goods in the county is already paying it.
Miller, a Democrat, had initially called the April 1 meeting to schedule a public hearing so the commission could put the back-up tax on the November ballot.
But when the meeting came to order, Miller switched tactics. Instead, he told fellow board members that now is not the time to talk about taxes. Too many people have lost jobs and are hurting, he said. Any further discussion of a transportation sales tax should be punted to 2021.
Three other commissioners agreed with him. The vote passed 4-3.
“I was blindsided,” Smith said. “I was flailing about, trying to put a substitute motion in. ... I’m hoping maybe a couple of other commissioners were also caught flat-footed and went along with Mr. Miller’s motion.”
Smith also shared concerns about the public comment portion of the April 1 meeting, where technical struggles prevented more than half the 27 people registered from speaking.
“This is something the voters told us they wanted," Smith said, “so it’s all the more important we hear from the citizens before we decide to close to the door on this option.”
Smith filed an agenda request asking the board Wednesday to rescind the vote and set a public hearing for May 4.
She hopes something has changed for her fellow commissioners in the last couple weeks, especially after U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and local business groups issued letters urging the board to “keep all of its options open.”
Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, wrote that the business group is sensitive to the crisis the pandemic has caused. “However, we remain hopeful,” he said, "that conditions will improve in the near future, giving the (commission) the opportunity to decide — at a later date — whether or not to proceed with the referendum.”
The Tampa Downtown Partnership also planned to send a letter to commissioners, urging them to put the tax on the ballot.
“Without local funding, our community will continue to lag in safety and economic development, with long commute times and insufficient transit service,” Downtown Partnership president Lynda Remund said in a news release.
But Miller told the Tampa Bay Times his feelings have not changed and he will vote against Smith’s motion.
“As much as I was out there in front of this tax, pushing this tax to get in the 2018 ballot, things have changed. The world has changed since that time,” Miller said. “People are overwhelmingly saying, ‘Do not talk to me about a tax right now.’"
That means one of the board’s three Republicans — Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman or Stacy White — would have to switch votes for Smith’s motion to pass. None of them returned calls from the Times this week.
The county’s handbook for commissioners allows board members to bring an item back up for a vote, even if they are on the losing side. But Miller said he believes this policy contradicts Robert’s Rules of Order and hampers the productivity of the commission.
“Usually it’s the same result over and over," he said. "I don’t know if anyone tomorrow is going to change their mind. I’m not.”
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