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Hillsborough Commission considers backup penny tax

With the All For Transportation tax in limbo, county commissioners plan to move forward with a replacement referendum for the November 2020 election
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 19, 2020
Updated Feb. 20, 2020

TAMPA — The Florida Supreme Court has yet to decide if and when Hillsborough County can legally spend the money piling up in its piggy bank since voters approved a one-percent sales surtax in 2018.

But with November’s general election drawing nearer and transportation deficiencies reaching critical mass, commissioners agreed Wednesday to begin working on Plan B — should the citizen-led All For Transportation tax be deemed unconstitutional by the court.

Commission Chairman Les Miller brought the proposal to Wednesday’s board meeting, where Commissioner Stacy White cast the lone dissenting vote against holding a public hearing to consider a replica penny sales tax of its own.

Related: Hillsborough’s transportation tax is at risk. What about a back-up tax?

That way, if the courts invalidate the existing tax, the county will still have time to get a doppelganger voter referendum on the November 3, 2020 ballot, levying a full penny transportation sales tax for the next 30 years.

But, the proposal stipulates, only in the event the state Supreme Court “substantially changes or negates” the 2018 surtax.

Commissioners scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for April 1 at 6 p.m.

Miller had initially proposed levying a half-cent sales tax, augmented by increased gas taxes, to tackle the county’s transportation needs. But in the hours before Wednesday’s meeting, he switched gears to a plan so reminiscent of the referendum approved by voters that White called it “All For Transportation 2.0.”

“Given the pressing unfunded transportation needs in Hillsborough County, which I think at the last time we counted was somewhere around $16 billion outside of our $6 billion county budget ... it is critical that this county commission takes timely action to ensure there’s no gap in transportation funding,” Miller told the board.

Related: Justices question validity of Hillsborough transportation tax

His proposal calls for 40 percent of the sales tax proceeds to go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, and the remaining 60 percent of collected funds to be disbursed by the county and its municipalities. Of that funding, at least one percent would help bolster the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which keeps track of failing infrastructure projects throughout the county.

The All For Transportation plan earmarked 45 percent of all proceeds to go to funding for the Hillsborough transit agency and 54 percent to the county and its cities. Miller also granted the cities and county the autonomy to spend the money on the transportation needs they deem fit, so long as they meet requirements outlined in state statutes. And each municipality would also have the ability to grant any amount of their respective shares to the Hillsborough transit authority through inter-local agreements.

Citizens would still have the ability to weigh in on how the money is spent. But unlike the All For Transportation plan, which called for projects to be approved by an Independent Oversight Committee for funding, Miller’s citizen oversight would be limited to simply reviewing audits of how the money was spent.

White said he was “intrigued” by Miller’s initial plan to implement a half-cent sales tax because “at least that plan, like it or not, had been substantially vetted during the Go Hillsborough surtax process.”

Under Miller’s plan, White said residents living in unincorporated Hillsborough County would get, at most, a 44 cent return on every dollar spent in transportation surtax money.

“I just want to make sure that the public is aware, from a public policy perspective, what this plan is and is not,” White said. “It is a mass transit plan for the urban core of this county. It is not a roads plan for residents of rural and suburban Hillsborough County.”

But White’s fellow board members insisted that any funding dedicated to transportation is sorely needed.

Related: Commissioners look to snuff out animal breeders in Hillsborough County

Major roadways should be repaved every 17 years, and local ones every 20 to 25 years, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization Beth Alden said. With existing transportation funding, the county can afford to repave roads only once every 28 years on average. There are 100 bridges within Hillsborough County deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, Alden said. The county can afford to fix an average of two per year with existing funding, she said.

And when comparing the county’s transit system to those across the country, the most similar to Tampa Bay are in Boise and Chattanooga, Alden said, referring to a Tampa Bay Times report. Those communities hold about one fifth the population of Hillsborough’s downtown and surrounding community.

The county’s attorneys said they expect the Supreme Court to issue a ruling on the tax in April, or at least before they’re adjourned in June.

In other actions, the county commission:

• Approved plans to hold a public hearing on March 4 at 10 a.m. to consider amending the county’s Pet Retail Sales Ordinance to ban all commercial pet retail stores within county limits. If passed, the county’s existing pet shops would be given 179 days to transition to an “adoption-based model” of housing animals obtained from animal shelters or rescue organizations.

• Approved plans to hold a public hearing on March 4 at 10 a.m. to consider increasing the county’s school impact fee on new residential development for the first time since 2006. According to the school district, the proposed increase would generate an additional $30 million to help pay for construction of a new high school and new elementary school near Apollo Beach, as well as an expansion at a South Tampa middle school converting to a K-8 campus.

Related: Hillsborough school officials request impact fee hike