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TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday 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.
Commission chairman Les Miller made the motion, saying he had taken phone calls from constituents who were crying and concerned about bills they were unable to pay.
“Now is not the time to be talking about a tax or raising fees,” Miller said. “People are hurting financially. They’re truly, truly hurting.”
Miller had called for Wednesday’s meeting to consider holding a virtual public hearing on April 15 to put the back-up sales tax on the November ballot.
Hillsborough residents and visitors already pay a one-cent transportation surtax that voters approved in 2018. But that tax could be invalidated if the Florida Supreme Court decides it is unconstitutional. The back-up tax was intended to replace the existing tax should that happen.
Miller told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday, a day after calling for the special meeting, that the commission can’t wait to act on a back-up funding plan.
“The number one thing right now is the coronavirus, but there is other business we have to take care of,” Miller said Tuesday. “We have to have better transit and transportation systems in Hillsborough County. If we miss this deadline, we have to wait two years or even more. We can’t wait on that.”
But Miller’s focus changed by Wednesday afternoon. He stressed repeatedly to his fellow commissioners that now was not the time to ask people who are already under emotional and financial stress to consider a tax.
Miller’s motion, which passed 4-3, was also supported by commissioners Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Stacy White.
Christina Barker and Tyler Hudson, co-founders of All For Transportation, which helped pass the 2018 transportation tax, issued a joint statement Wednesday afternoon, saying the new reality of economic hardship many people will face as a result of COVID-19 only strengthens their commitment to the transportation solutions voters approved in 2018.
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“Until this pandemic, Hillsborough County’s failing transportation system was also its most urgent public health crisis,” the joint statement said. “We understand (it) is imperative that Hillsborough County marshal all of its resources and energy in service of saving lives and mitigating the effects of COVID-19.”
Before Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioner White issued a statement calling any request for an April 15 virtual public meeting a “last-minute tax grab proposal.”
“The absolute last thing the County Commission should be worrying about during these challenging times is levying a new sales tax,” White said.
White is also one of the individuals who brought forth a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2018 sales tax that is now pending a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court.
Commissioners Pat Kemp, Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman voted against the motion, instead asking the commission to defer the decision until the next board meeting, scheduled for April 15. Their hope was that a public hearing could be held later this month in order to meet state deadlines for placing a referendum on the ballot.
The meeting was also plagued by technical issues that prevented more than half of the 27 people who signed up for public comment from speaking.
Overman said she received Facebook messages from numerous people who signed up to talk, saying, “We’re here. We’re muted. We can’t speak.”
Smith said she hoped moving the vote to April 15 would allow the county to troubleshoot its technical issues and give more people the ability to partake in the process.
“This decision really needs that public discussion ... before we vote on deferring it to another year,” Smith said.
Those who were able to speak were split between moving forward with the back-up tax and waiting until the imminent threat of the coronavirus had passed.
“All I’m really asking is for you to put this on for a referendum and let those voters decide whether or not they would like to impose this tax on themselves,” said resident David Mechanik, who also serves on the county’s transit board.
But resident Thomas Gaitens agreed with Miller’s motion and said it is imperative that the county put the needs of the people first.
“This is the most desperate time people of any of these generations have probably experienced in their lives,” Gaitens said.
Smith, Overman and Kemp said they recognized the toll of the coronavirus on the community, but said they wanted to keep all options on the table while also seeing exactly how the pandemic would continue to impact the health and economy of Hillsborough County.
If the board had decided this month to place the tax on the fall ballot, Smith said the commission had the option through the summer to change their minds once they have more information.
“Even if we’ve had a financial crisis, we still may need this more than ever,” Smith said. “If we decide later in the year it’s not right, we have the option to pull it back.”
Overman clarified that the tax being considered would take the place of the existing tax approved in 2018.
“It’s not a new tax," Overman said. "It’s not an additional tax. It’s to preserve the sales tax the citizens of Hillsborough County already voted on.”
That 2018 tax remains in place, separate from the action the board took Wednesday. Hillsborough County’s sales tax is 8.5 percent.
The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the validity of the 2018 transportation surtax in February. In order to issue a ruling, four justices much reach agreement. Only five justices are serving on the state’s highest court at this time.
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