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Hillsborough sales tax referendum headed to voters

On a 5-2 party-line vote, commissioners agreed to ask voters in November to approve a 1 percent sales tax for transportation.
LUIS SANTANA   |   Times
Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority  bus at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Wednesday night, Hillsborough commissioners voted 5-2 to put a 1 percent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot. Under the formula, the transit agency would receive 45 percent of the tax proceeds if voters approve the referendum.
LUIS SANTANA | Times Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Wednesday night, Hillsborough commissioners voted 5-2 to put a 1 percent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot. Under the formula, the transit agency would receive 45 percent of the tax proceeds if voters approve the referendum. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times (2019) ]
Published Apr. 21|Updated Apr. 21

TAMPA — Forty-four people addressed Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday night to voice their opinions on a proposed referendum for a 1 percent sales tax for transportation.

By the end of the more than two-hour public hearing, 24 people said they supported the referendum and 20 objected.

When it came to the commission, the margin wasn’t that close. On a 5-2 party-line vote, commissioners agreed to ask voters in November to approve the sales tax for transportation.

“Let our voters make the final decision,” said Commissioner Gwen Myers.

Republican Commissioners Stacy White and Ken Hagan dissented.

White said the planned spending is too Tampa-centric.

“It’s terrible for the unincorporated communities in Hillsborough County,” White said.

Under the proposed spending plan, 45 percent of the proceeds would be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. The county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would divide 54.5 percent based on their populations, and one-half percent would be set aside for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

If voters approve the referendum, the tax is projected to raise $342 million in its first full year.

Before the vote, several speakers touted the benefits improved mass transit would have on their communities.

“I think people want a way around town without sitting in traffic,” said 17-year-old Hillsborough County resident Vishnu Malhotra.

“It is time for action. Doing nothing is not an option,” said Mickey Jacob, an architect speaking on behalf of the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. “Our county ... cannot grow and prosper without this decisive action.”

Other speakers objected and based their opposition on the economy and rising inflation.

Charlotte Greenbarg, of Lutz, argued that a sales tax is regressive and disproportionately affects lower-income people.

“It makes the rich richer and the poor poorer,” she said.

“People are struggling just to make ends meet,” argued Shirley Wood of Lithia.

But Commissioner Harry Cohen later reminded speakers that inflation goes both ways.

“If we kick the can down the road and don’t do these projects now, these will get more expensive,” he said.

Other speakers lamented the failed effort at a $1 billion transportation plan in 1999. It had been recommended by a citizens group but failed to garner commission support.

“The problem is real. Transportation is still messed up in Hillsborough County,” said former Commissioner Thomas Scott.

Voters approved a similar sales tax in 2018, by a margin of 57-43 percent. The Florida Supreme Court voided it last year after a legal challenge led by White. He said the tax was illegal because the spending allocations were set by a preconceived formula instead of by elected public officials. The $562 million collected from the tax remains escrowed.

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The transit authority and local governments previously provided lists of their needs to the commission.

The city of Tampa said it could use $72 million annually for road maintenance, sidewalks, streetlights and congestion relief strategies — including traffic signals and intersection changes — but only has $8.9 million budgeted.

Plant City reported nearly $45 million of unfunded needs over the next decade.

The city of Temple Terrace said it has an $8 million shortfall on bicycle and pedestrian paths.

The transit authority, funded now by an annual property tax, said adding buses and paratransit vans, refurbishing transit centers, providing premium services such as bus rapid transit and making other improvements across the system requires an additional $10.9 billion investment over the next 30 years.

The county has said it faces a $1.5 billion shortfall to expand and improve its transportation system over the next decade, plus another $700 million to maintain transportation facilities.

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