TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith has a lengthy to-do list: Things she hopes to accomplish with a new five-person Democratic majority on the commission.
She’s not alone. Commissioner Pat Kemp, fresh off a brutal but successful re-election campaign, Commissioners-elect Harry Cohen and Gwen Myers and sitting Commissioner Kimberly Overman have their own ideas percolating, too.
Kemp, on Election Day, called the new majority the start of a transformational time for Hillsborough County government. Smith, Kemp’s close ally, put it more candidly.
“I’m hoping," Smith said, "we now have a board to get away from the same old, same old — the stuff that had been done on land-use positions and the mismanagement of our growth and infrastructure that has benefitted a small handful of sprawl-pushing developers over the people who have lived here.”
The economic outfall from the coronavirus pandemic likely will color much of the decision-making facing commissioners in the coming year. Cohen, Myers and Commissioner Kimberly Overman, elected in 2018, said transportation and infrastructure will be top priorities.
Kemp, first elected in 2016, and Smith, who joined the commission two years later, have had the county’s growth policies in their sights for some time. The residential housing boom in south county, they said, is unsustainable, with crowded schools, traffic congestion and water pressure problems the norm.
“South county is now overbuilt for the infrastructure support it needs,” agreed Overman.
It could translate into a litany of potential policy changes making it easier for the public to participate in zoning hearings, ending waivers that allow new construction along substandard roads and re-evaluating the county’s impact fees — the one-time charges on new construction to help cover the cost of providing services to growing areas.
If all that comes to fruition, it likely means greater political battles over when and where new neighborhoods will be built, and the new houses contained within them will be pricier.
Likewise, some commissioners want to end the accounting technique that establishes the county as a bank to collect multi-year assessments for water and sewer connections to new homes. It results in exorbitant interest charges to the public and hides from the buyer the true cost of a newly built home, said Kemp.
Notably, to get some commuters off the roads, they also plan to throw a lifeline to the proposed ferry service between south county and MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa. That public-private venture appeared dead a year ago, when a commission majority of Republican Commissioners — Sandy Murman, Stacy White and Ken Hagan, joined by Chairman Les Miller Jr. — voted to punt the proposal to the cash-strapped Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Murman and Miller both will leave office Nov. 17.
"I’m very open to that discussion. Any innovative way of moving people around deserves our attention,'' said Cohen, who succeeds Murman as the District 1 commissioner.
Transportation clearly is on everyone’s radar. Earlier this year, commissioners agreed to increase the fees for schools, transportation, parks and water and sewer utilities. The higher transportation fee, which doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, is being phased in over a two-year period and isn’t scheduled to be assessed at 100 percent until 2023.
Kemp said she’d like to wipe out the phasing and begin collecting the full transportation fee in 2021.
“Absolutely, I hope we have the support to do that because it’s been under-funded forever,” Kemp said.
Myers, however, who campaigned with Kemp and contributed $250 to her re-election account, said she wasn’t yet ready to consider accelerating the previously approved fee schedule.
While the Tampa Bay Builders Association endorsed the increased fees for school construction, it mounted an unsuccessful public relations campaign against increasing the fees for transportation and parks. Murman raised a series of objections to the higher fees during the commission’s debate, but then cast her vote for the increases. Only Hagan dissented.
Not by coincidence, the building industry fueled a significant portion of Murman’s failed bid to unseat Kemp. Murman’s campaign and political action committee spent more than $860,000, and that doesn’t account for all the third-party help from other builder-supported political committees. The Tampa Bay Builders Association contributed $200,000 to the effort, helping fuel a Murman campaign that criticized Kemp for what it called a no-growth, job-killing agenda.
The attacks also spread to everything from ethics concerns to Kemp’s personal investments and the clients she represented as an attorney.
Smith called it “a million dollars worth of lies and negative, smear attacks of the worst kind.”
So, is riding herd on development policies a case of exacting a political pound of flesh?
"Rather than a pound of flesh, I would say a square foot of park, of a fire station, of roadway, of a school building. That’s what I want to exact,'' said Kemp.
“At the end of the day, somebody’s got to pay," said Smith. "Either the builders pay or the taxpayers' got to pay or the infrastructure doesn’t get built.”
The building community also backed Cohen, and it supported Myers in her general election campaign after preferring one of her opponents, Thomas Scott, in the August primary.
"I don’t think that growth is a partisan issue as far as that goes,'' said Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
“The industry will continue. People want to live in nice communities. They want homes. The industry will absolutely continue. The only question is where will those new homes be built and how will they be built,” she said. “We’ll have to see how all that shakes out.”
During the public debate over raising transportation impact fees, the association said building, development and related professions account for one-fifth of the Hillsborough County economy. It also shared data from MetroStudy saying nearly 3,000 jobs are created for every 1,000 newly constructed homes.
“Paying for infrastructure,” said Kemp, “creates jobs, too.”