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Hillsborough commissioners look to hold virtual public hearing for back-up transportation tax

Elected officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties must decide in the next month whether or not to place transportation sales taxes on their respective ballots this November.

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TAMPA — This week was supposed to be a big one for transportation in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Commissioners on both sides of the bay scheduled meetings to decide whether to advance plans to place transportation sales taxes on their respective November ballots.

Hillsborough set a public hearing date Wednesday for its one-cent backup plan, should the Florida Supreme Court overturn the existing transportation sales tax. Pinellas commissioners awaited a presentation scheduled Thursday from administrator Barry Burton on what a half- or full-cent tax would look like.

Related: What could $5 billion do for Pinellas transportation? County has some ideas.

But then Florida saw its first confirmed coronavirus cases and everything changed.

Public meetings were canceled. Plans were put on hold as county leaders scrambled to respond to a constantly-evolving public health crisis.

Now, both counties have put safer-at-home orders in place and elected officials are starting to turn a sliver of their focus back to governing outside of coronavirus.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller called for a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss scheduling a virtual public hearing to replace the canceled in-person meeting.

The county tax, which is similar to one voters passed in November 2018, is considered a back-up option should the Florida Supreme Court find the existing tax unconstitutional. A draft ordinance prepared by county legal staff says the 2020 attempt and 2018 version “shall never be levied at the same time.”

Related: Backup levy would not double Hillsborough's transportation tax, officials say

Commissioners will call in to Wednesday’s virtual meeting from their homes. Other people, including residents, can submit a form to make a public comment over the phone during the meeting.

Commissioners will then vote on whether to hold a virtual public hearing on April 15. At that meeting, Miller hopes they will decide to place the tax on the fall ballot. Ballot language must be submitted to the state by early May.

“I haven’t heard anything from the state whether they’re delaying that deadline at all," Miller said. “We’re not taking any chances.”

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton is also proceeding as if the state deadlines will not change. Burton said he and the commissioners are focused primarily on the county’s reaction to COVID-19, but need some direction about on whether to move forward with a sales tax.

“This threw everything into a little spin, so now I’m just going to ask them what their pleasure is,” Burton said. “We haven’t decided whether we’re going forward or not, or what we’re doing yet.”

County staff had planned a presentation Thursday on a $5 billion list of road, trail and transit needs that they’ve gathered from the cities and transportation departments, but will table that for now. Instead, Burton said his main question Thursday is whether or not the commission wants to continue pursuing a sales tax plan for the fall. If so, they have to schedule a public hearing sometime in the next month.

Though counties have to submit ballot language to the state by early May, Burton said they have through the summer to change their minds.

“If commissioners choose to put it on the ballot, they could always pull it off by, I think, August if they decide, ‘You know, now isn’t the right time,'" Burton said. “Or maybe everything is back to normal, or close to it, and they decide ‘Let’s leave it on.'"

For years, county officials have struggled with a shrinking pot of available dollars. Pinellas County’s transportation trust fund will dip into negatives starting in 2022.

County staff has spent the last year and a half evaluating solutions — projects that could make a difference and revenue sources to pay for them.

A draft of the area’s wish lists — pitched by cities including Clearwater, Largo, St. Petersburg and Oldsmar — includes a mix of sidewalks, new lanes, synchronized stoplights, more frequent bus routes, widened intersections and expanded trails.

If everything on the lists were completed, the work would cost more than a billion dollars over the next 30 years, according to staff research.

Operating and maintenance for the new projects would cost an additional $62 million annually.

How to participate in Wednesday’s 1:30 p.m. public meeting on the Hillsborough County transportation tax

Anyone who wishes to speak during the meeting can fill out the public comment form at https://hcflgov.formstack.com/forms/public_comment_transportation_surtax. You will be required to provide your name and telephone number and will be given a call-in number for the meeting. All callers will be muted and will be unmuted after being recognized by the chairman in the order they submitted their form. Each speaker is allowed three minutes. You may also submit comments or any documents prior to the meeting by sending them to boccrec@hillsclerk.com.

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