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No remedy yet for Hillsborough sales tax refund

Exactly who should have jurisdiction over disbursing $503 million remains unresolved in Hillsborough circuit court
These are some of the mail pieces used by the, citizens group All for Transportation in the sales tax referendum campaign of 2018. Fifty-seven percent of the voters supported the tax that later was voided by the Florida Supreme Court.   [Times 2018 |
These are some of the mail pieces used by the, citizens group All for Transportation in the sales tax referendum campaign of 2018. Fifty-seven percent of the voters supported the tax that later was voided by the Florida Supreme Court. [Times 2018 |
Published Mar. 30
Updated Mar. 30

TAMPA — Less than a week after the Florida Supreme Court voided Hillsborough’s transportation sales tax, County Commissioner Stacy White and his colleagues directed their staff to work with local and state authorities to “create the process to refund the money as quickly as practical.”

White seconded the March 3 motion from Commissioner Ken Hagan, saying he wanted to be sure “as our lawyers go to court on our behalf that the county commission’s officially stated position would be that we support that money being refunded to the people that have paid what we now know to be an unlawful levy of (tax) dollars.”

The motion passed 6-0.

Fifteen days later, however, White filed his own motion — this time a legal argument in Hillsborough Circuit Court — saying “Hillsborough County is seeking to hijack this case” in asking the court for guidance on delivering refunds.

Tuesday morning, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas listened to arguments from lawyers representing White, Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, municipal governments and the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court in an attempt to determine who has jurisdiction over a refund procedure. Barbas did not issue an immediate ruling after the 25-minute hearing.

Related: Hillsborough commissioners: We'll give back sales tax money

At stake is distribution of the nearly $503 million collected between Jan. 1, 2019, and the state Supreme Court’s Feb. 25 ruling. Voters, by a 57-43 margin, approved the penny on the dollar sales tax in November 2018 to pay for transportation improvements for the regional transit authority, the county, and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

White sued, saying the spending decisions fell within the authority of the elected county commission, not a citizens group that had initiated the referendum. The Florida Supreme Court agreed in a ruling that became final March 15.

Related: Florida Supreme Court strikes down Hillsborough transportation tax

Among the defendants in White’s suit is Hillsborough County. The county’s outside counsel, Alan Zimmet, filed a motion March 17 asking Barbas to take input from the circuit court clerk, the Florida Department of Revenue and others and then to issue an order “setting forth procedures and requirements for disposition of surtax revenues that were collected, but not yet expended.”

White’s attorney, Chris W. Altenbernd, objected, saying it was inappropriate for the county to seek court action through a lawsuit in which White is the only plaintiff. He asked Barbas to issue a final order closing White’s case, and said the county could file its own suit if it wanted relief from the court.

A resolution on the refunds also could come via separate legal action from Robert Emerson of Apollo Beach. Emerson has filed circuit court suits seeking class action status in both Hillsborough and Leon counties.

Zimmet and attorney David Caldevilla, representing Clerk of the Circuit Court Cindy Stuart, argued Barbas should retain jurisdiction because state law seeks to prevent duplicate legal proceedings that the Emerson suits could promote.

“This is exactly what should be avoided,” Caldevilla said.

White did not attend the hearing held via teleconference, but shared his sentiments Monday with the Tampa Bay Times.

“Hillsborough County government should stay out of it at this point,” White said in a text message, and he said he saw no contradiction between his March 3 commission vote and his March 18 court filing.

“My stance was just that the county commission’s official position be that we want the money to be refunded in an orderly and efficient manner, not that we should directly have a hand in the process,” White said.

He also took aim at All For Transportation, the citizens group that championed the referendum,

“As my attorney pointed out, Hillsborough County didn’t create this mess. All for Transportation did,” said White.

The group pointed blame back at White.

“Let’s be clear, the real mess here is our transportation crisis and it was created by Commissioner White and others who have refused to address this community’s growing transportation needs for many, many years,” said Christina Barker, co-founder of All for Transportation. “Instead of offering any real solutions, Commissioner White continues to fight and blame the nearly 60 percent of voters who took steps to clean up this mess in 2018.”

Related: Commissioner seeks to restart transportation tax referendum

The county commission already has instructed its staff to begin the steps to put the sales tax referendum before voters again in November 2022. White voted for that motion, too, though he offered a qualifier that he might not do so in the future.