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Hillsborough advances getting 15-year sales tax renewal on ballot

Money for schools, which just voted in their own property tax for voters to consider, would be slashed in the next Community Investment Tax under the current proposal.
 
Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Van Ayres watches from the audience at Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting as board members decided how much schools might get if voters decide to renew the county's half-penny sales tax. The answer: not nearly as much as before, but not zero, either.
Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Van Ayres watches from the audience at Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting as board members decided how much schools might get if voters decide to renew the county's half-penny sales tax. The answer: not nearly as much as before, but not zero, either. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 3|Updated April 3

The Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to move forward on renewing the half-penny sales tax that has paid for billions in projects countywide over the last three decades — but for half the duration and with much less money for local schools.

After a discussion that included some bipartisan bartering, commissioners voted 5-2 to put the Community Investment Tax referendum on the November ballot. It would ask voters whether they support renewing the sales tax for 15 more years — less than the original 30-year life of the tax, but more than the five or 10 years some commissioners had suggested.

Schools, which have long been receiving 25% of the tax revenues, now stand to get 5%.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen during a Board of County Commissioners meeting Wednesday.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen during a Board of County Commissioners meeting Wednesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“This is the most important thing we are going to do, I believe, as a County Commission this year,” said Commissioner Michael Owen.

The proposal is now scheduled for a public hearing at 10 a.m. April 17, after which the commission is expected to take another vote toward placing the question on the ballot.

The tax, which passed in 1996 with 53% of the vote and is best known for building Raymond James Stadium, has since funded at least $2.6 billion in roads, public safety facilities, parks, libraries, fire stations and other projects across Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace and the unincorporated county.

The school district has received about $655 million for new schools, renovations and buses. School boosters — including members of the public who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting — call that money critical.

But Tuesday night, the School Board voted 5-2 for its own referendum that will ask voters if they would support a property tax increase for teacher pay, aimed at addressing a teacher vacancy problem in Hillsborough schools. Its referendum has been cited in county discussions about whether schools should be included in the county sales tax this time around.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Commission chairperson Ken Hagan told fellow commissioners Wednesday he’s concerned that two referendums involving schools on the same ballot will be perceived as “double dipping.”

School Board members have pointed out that their referendum can only pay for operational costs and not for badly needed buildings, which the sales tax has long funded.

In an emailed statement to the Tampa Bay Times after the meeting, Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Van Ayres thanked the board for including schools in the next incarnation of the tax.

“If voters approve this measure, the (Community Investment Tax) would generate approximately $187 million over 15 years for public schools,” Ayres said, “which means the district will most likely have to look for new funding sources to accommodate our growing community and build the schools that our students will need.”

Discussion at the meeting Wednesday generally broke down along party lines, with Democratic commissioners favoring a longer tax and more money for schools and Republicans less.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Hagan, along with Commissioner Gwen Myers, who had proposed a 20-year tax with 10% for schools, were the no votes in the end Wednesday.

There was also support for getting the question on the ballot in a presidential election year even though the tax doesn’t expire until 2026.

”We’re going to have a big turnout in the fall,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen. “I think that this is our opportunity to secure our future going forward.”