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A $423 million pothole: Hillsborough budget shows transportation shortfall

Declining sales tax collections from the pandemic are blamed for the deficit.
Hillsborough County's 10-year, $812 million transportation plan faces a $423 million deficit, budget officials said Wednesday while presenting the proposed 2021 county budget to commissioners. Pictures is traffic on State Road 60 in Brandon. [Times (2011)]
Hillsborough County's 10-year, $812 million transportation plan faces a $423 million deficit, budget officials said Wednesday while presenting the proposed 2021 county budget to commissioners. Pictures is traffic on State Road 60 in Brandon. [Times (2011)]
Published Jul. 15, 2020
Updated Jul. 15, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s 10-year, $812 million transportation plan just hit a $423 million pothole.

Even a potential $185 million patch, courtesy of a bond issue, leaves the plan with a $238 million deficit.

The shortfall for the plan, adopted in September 2016, comes mostly from a steep decline in projected sales tax collections due to the coronavirus pandemic. The news came Wednesday during County Administrator Bonnie Wise’s initial budget presentation to county commissioners.

Related: RELATED: Local governments face a pandemic cash crunch

Commissioners offered little comment, but said they would schedule a workshop after the county learns the fate of the transportation surtax case that is before the Florida Supreme Court.

Wise’s proposed $6.712 billion budget reflected an increase of just less than 1 percent over the current budget. Proposed new spending in the general fund included: Hiring 66 employees to staff two new fire stations under construction, replacing a Head Start facility, adding a new south county adult day care center and buying body cameras for sheriff’s deputies.

For this year, Sheriff Chad Chronister suspended the six-year plan to add 59 deputies annually to the Sheriff’s Office.

The proposed budget included wage increases for lower-paid employees and the county absorbing all of a 9 percent increase in health insurance costs.

County Administrator Bonnie Wise presented her first budget proposed to county commissioners Wednesday.
County Administrator Bonnie Wise presented her first budget proposed to county commissioners Wednesday. [ Hillsborough County ]

The county budget includes two separate tax rates, which have remained steady since 2008. All property is assessed at a rate of just less than $5.74 per $1,000 of property value. Businesses and residents in the unincorporated areas of the county, about two-thirds of the county population, also pay a rate of just less than $4.74 per $1,000 for services such as fire, parks and recreation, code enforcement and other departments. Property within the three cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace pay separate taxes to their municipal governments.

County revenues were bolstered by an 8 percent increase in expected property tax collections because of growing tax rolls.

But sales, gasoline and tourist taxes are all down. The state-shared sales tax produced $114 million in fiscal year 2019. That is projected to drop to $103 million in the current budget year ending Sept. 30, and to decline to $92.2 million next year. It means a $34 million two-year drop in anticipated revenue in the two general funds.

With fewer people traveling or commuting to work each day, fuel taxes, which brought in $52.5 million in 2019, are projected to decline to $45.5 million in the current year, and to $46.9 million in 2021, or a combined two-year decline of $12.6 million.

The wasn’t the only transportation-related budget news.

In 2016, commissioners voted to earmark an extra $35 million of the budget to transportation and increase that amount by $5 million every year for the next decade. That meant about $600 million was supposed to be committed over 10 years to repair roads, sidewalks, bridges and intersections.

The transportation plan was dubbed the 812 plan because it called for $812 million, including impact fees, worth of transportation spending.

But halfway through the 10 years, the numbers aren’t adding up. Instead of $299 million in the first five years, projections call for just $189 million to be available. And for the fiscal years stretching from 2022-26, the county estimated an additional $313 million shortfall, leaving the $812 million plan with a $423 million deficit.

Much of the transportation spending comes from the general fund covering unincorporated Hillsborough County, which is absorbing the declining sales tax collections.

The county’s own sales tax, called the community investment tax and known by the acronym CIT, had been expected to help fund the transportation improvements until the 30-year tax expires in six years. But commissioners were warned in April that wasn’t likely to happen.

“Those dollars are likely to experience a significant reduction. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the 812 plan,‘' Tom Fesler, assistant county administrator for financial services, said then.

It was much the same message on Wednesday. If nothing changes, the so-called $812 million plan effectively is a $389 million plan.

“The unincorporated (general fund) projections are disturbing, but not new,‘' said Commissioner Pat Kemp.

To cut into that transportation deficit, Fesler said the county will consider a $185 million bond issue in the coming year, that will leave the 10-year shortfall at $238 million.

Commissioners scheduled a budget workshop for July 30 and two public hearings on the budget for Sept. 10 and Sept. 17 before final adoption. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.