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Hillsborough judge says he will consider sales tax refund options

Hillsborough County is seeking court guidance on returning nearly $503 million in sales tax collections.
Mailers promoted the one percent sales tax for Hillsborough Count transportation projects. Voters approved the sales tax referendum by a 57-43 margin in November 2018. This week a judge's order says he will retain the authority to help devise a refund of the tax. TIMES (2018)
Mailers promoted the one percent sales tax for Hillsborough Count transportation projects. Voters approved the sales tax referendum by a 57-43 margin in November 2018. This week a judge's order says he will retain the authority to help devise a refund of the tax. TIMES (2018)
Published Apr. 9
Updated Apr. 9

TAMPA — A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge said he retains the authority to help devise a public refund of the nearly $503 million collected through the voided Hillsborough transportation surtax.

Circuit Judge Rex Barbas’ April 7 order in the case of Commissioner Stacy White versus Hillsborough County over the penny on the sales tax included the provision that “this court also retains jurisdiction to consider the pending motions for supplemental relief” and, if appropriate, to grant that relief “regarding the possible return of the surtax receipts to the clerk and the disposition of the surtax receipts.”

The order, called a final judgment, came eight days after a hearing attended by attorneys for 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.

Related: No remedy yet for Hillsborough sales tax refund

Voters approved the sales tax in November 2018 and it produced nearly $503 million in the 27 months it was collected before the Florida Supreme Court ruled it illegal in a case brought by White. He had sued, saying elected commissioners, not a citizens committee that advocated for the referendum, retained the authority on allocating the sales tax proceeds.

Hillsborough commissioners said they would refund the tax and their outside counsel looked to Barbas for guidance in a March 17 motion. White filed a separate motion the following day asking for the court to close his case, contending “Hillsborough County is seeking to hijack this case” in asking the help on delivering refunds.

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

The refunds remain at issue because of circuit court lawsuits seeking class action status from Apollo Beach resident Robert Emerson, filed in both Hillsborough and Leon counties.

At least one Hillsborough commissioner, Kimberly Overman, publicly expressed concern that a class action suit could enrich the law firms administering the refunds, leaving less for the public who paid the sales tax.

White said Friday that Barbas’ ruling likely ends his involvement.

“My legal team anticipates that the issue of the return and disposition of surtax receipts will be resolved in such a way that there will be no further need for me to take a position on these issues,” White said in a text message.

In agreeing to close White’s case, Barbas did not rule on the motion from attorney Alan Zimmet, the county’s outside counsel. He asked the judge to take input from the office of the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court, 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.”