Don’t be counting on a Hillsborough County sales tax refund this holiday season.
The fate of the more than $500 million from the now-voided 1 percent sales tax for transportation won’t be determined this year, even though lawyers asked for judicial guidance on a refund six months ago.
Voters approved the tax in 2018, but the Florida Supreme Court tossed it out as unconstitutional in February. By the end of March, $521 million had been collected over the 26 months the tax was in place.
Hillsborough County proposed a refund process — in which citizens would have to apply for their money — that would be overseen by a three-judge panel. Attorneys for Commissioner Stacy White — who challenged the constitutionality of the tax because the spending allocations were pre-determined by referendum language, instead of elected county commissioners — argued the refunds should be settled by a class-action lawsuit filed in Leon County.
White also has suggested holding a temporary sales tax holiday within Hillsborough County as a possible resolution, but that would require approval from the Legislature in Tallahassee.
“I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve seen with the (refund) mechanism,” Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas told attorneys in a June 22 hearing.
Barbas did not specify his concerns and has yet to rule on how to handle a potential refund. Instead, he has summoned lawyers for a Jan. 26 “round table discussion,” according to a memo from Hillsborough County’s outside legal counsel, Alan Zimmet.
“We are hopeful that at the round table discussion we will receive direction from Judge Barbas regarding his willingness to assume jurisdiction over the refund process and what that process will be,” Zimmet said.
The lack of a resolution has frustrated both sides, including residents who paid the tax.
“It is taking too long. They decided to refund it quite a while ago,” Joe Sylvester, of Tampa, told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview.
He purchased a new vehicle in 2019 and wants a $50 refund for the sales tax he paid.
Tony Griffin, of Valrico, voted against the referendum and wondered why the court didn’t use the state sales tax schedule provided for federal tax returns as its guidance.
“I am very frustrated that it is taking so long for making a simple decision,” said Griffin. “I spent a lot of money buying appliances and replacing different things. I’d love to get some of that money back.”
Instead of a refund, Fred Kalhammer, of Sun City, said he hoped the judge could try “as many of us taxpayers would prefer, finding a way to employ the funds for transit improvements in Hillsborough County, which is what the voters who approved the 2018 ballot initiative wanted anyway.”
It’s a sentiment shared by All For Transportation, the citizens group that collected the signatures for the ballot referendum.
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“The length of this process has been painful, but we are hopeful that our local courts will make the right decision for the community and one that honors and protects the will of Hillsborough County voters,” said Tyler Hudson, co-founder of All for Transportation.
White said he, too, wanted a timely answer.
“My only hope is that this gets resolved as expeditiously as possible so that taxpayers can be repaid in some manner,” he said.
The uncertainty over a refund from the 2018 referendum could potentially cloud the outcome of a proposed ballot initiative in November 2022. The Hillsborough Commission already indicated it would seek a second referendum next year to restore the tax for transportation.
Hudson suggested the disputed refund was part of the strategy to defeat a second referendum.
“Certainly those that brought this lawsuit are hoping this confusion causes voters to reject a possible 2022 effort to address our community’s transportation crisis,” Hudson said. “The bottom line is that the problem continues to worsen and voters have had enough. The status quo is not going to cut it.”
White disputed the allegation and said his “hope regarding an outcome is not tied to strategy related to a possible 2022 referendum.”
Zimmet, of the Bryant Miller Olive law firm, is scheduled to brief commissioners Wednesday afternoon on the status of the case.