TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners said Wednesday they will refund the proceeds from the voided transportation sales tax.
Then they said they will start the process of asking voters to consider paying the higher sales tax again in a November 2022 referendum.
“Our citizens have been paying into this for two years. We waited to spend the money. We don’t have to wait to refund the money,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan.
Hagan’s motion called for the county, state Department of Revenue and the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court to work together to facilitate the refunds pending court action. Commissioners approved it unanimously.
Hagan called the $502.3 million that’s been collected, but not spent, “fruit from a poisonous tree.” The commission’s resolution, Hagan said, ”shows our citizens we understand the stakes here. We’re not fighting this.”
Commissioners did not discuss the logistics of how to process refunds, a task that could be cumbersome since sales taxes are paid by individual customers but collected by the businesses providing goods and services.
Voters approved a penny-on-the-dollar transportation sales tax increase in November 2018, a measure that had been championed by the citizens group All for Transportation. Forty-five percent of the revenue was earmarked to the county’s transit authority and the rest divided among the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. The Metropolitan Planning Organization would use 1 percent of revenue for transportation planning and oversight.
Commissioner Stacy White, however, filed a legal challenge to the referendum’s validity. And last week, the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the sales tax increase, saying the spending decisions must lie with elected county commissioners, not a citizens group. The court, however, did not address how to handle the revenue that had been collected already.
The sales tax remains on the books because the Florida Supreme Court order isn’t final until the time limit for a rehearing request expires March 12. A separate class action lawsuit also sought to void the tax, but it has been on hold pending the Florida Supreme Court case. The county attorney’s office said it will ask to have that case dismissed.
Separately, the commission also supported a motion from Commissioner Gwen Myers instructing the county staff to begin the necessary paperwork and set a timeline to put another sales tax referendum before the voters in 2022.
“You might be surprised I’m going to support your motion,” White told Myers, complimenting her leadership and her desire to fulfill a campaign promise. “That does not necessarily mean I will be supportive of sending this out to referendum.” .
Hagan noted the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for repaving and repairing existing roads and sidewalks.
“It’s too big of an issue for us to keep kicking the can down the road for another couple of years,” he said.
Myers asked the county staff to prepare a timeline for workshops, public hearings and a deadline to deliver ballot language to the Supervisor of Elections Office. She asked to have the information delivered to commissioners next month.