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Hillsborough slows work on school air conditioners as tax collections ebb

Revenue from the 2018 referendum for improvements is down as much as 28 percent during the pandemic.

TAMPA — Up to one-third of next year’s referendum-funded capital projects in the Hillsborough County Public Schools might be postponed because of lower sales tax revenues, an oversight committee was told Friday.

The economic slowdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic cut millions from the half-cent sales surtax that voters approved in a 2018 referendum. In just March and April, losses totaled nearly $5 million.

The referendum was intended to pay for more than $1.3 billion in school physical improvements over a decade. Most of the need came from air conditioners that grew unreliable after years of inadequate maintenance. Other projects included new classroom technology, security upgrades, roofs, painting and weather-proofing.

To raise this kind of money, the district relies largely on tourism revenues that dried up when hotels, theme parks and restaurants closed in the early months of COVID-19.

In March, usually a prosperous month, Hillsborough’s $8.37 million in referendum collections were 20 percent below the $10.3 million raised in March of 2019. April’s $6.7 million was 28 percent below the $9.2 million of the year before.

There was good news on Friday, as May’s receipts of $8.2 million were only 15 percent down, year over year. “Normally you wouldn’t be happy with a 15 percent decrease,” district operations chief Chris Farkas said.

But May spending might have been a fluke, Farkas said, and so the district is still planning to slow its work, and add the jobs back if collections increase. A committee, working with an outside consultant, will decide which jobs to reschedule.

“Our selection process plan is still to go with one-third,” Farkas said. “It’s imperative to make sure we don’t overspend.”

Air conditioning overhauls have been a top priority, with the district tackling as many as 20 a year. They were able to stay on schedule this summer, and had their pick of contractors because many commercial projects were cancelled.

Farkas reported that as of 7:30 a.m., with teachers returning for planning and training, systems were working in all the schools. He said work is also under way to inspect and improve the air filtration and circulation systems to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the closed buildings.

Despite virus-related problems with supplies, two new schools in the Riverview area — Sumner High and Belmont Elementary — are on schedule to open Aug. 24, assuming the district goes ahead with its plans for in-person school.