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'Squabbling' over $8 million a precursor to bigger Hillsborough transportation debate?

TAMPA — Ever since Hillsborough County commissioners discovered an $8 million pot of money earlier this month, they have argued at length over how to spend it on roads and sidewalks.

To put that in perspective, the $4.8 billion budget passed unanimously earlier this year with almost no conversation.

The discourse continued on Wednesday, when commissioners debated how to split up the $8 million, which are excess funds returned to the county from the constitutional officers. Three commissioners said it should be divided evenly among the four County Commission districts, but were overruled by the other four, who said it would set a dangerous precedent where politics, not priority, determine which roads get paved.

They ultimately adjourned without allocating any of it.

The bickering over such a minor sum left some commissioners wondering what's going to happen next year when all seven of them will have to settle on a way to fund billions of dollars worth of roadwork, sidewalk repairs and transit expansion.

"If you care about your constituents and you care about your districts and you want to get things done in your districts, you better find a more feasible way to find more money to pay for these projects," Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. "It's not going to happen by squabbling over $8 million.

"Long term," he added, "better be thinking forward to February."

After several delays, February is now likely the earliest that commissioners will vote on whether to place a half-cent sales tax for transportation referendum on the ballot in 2016. Six of the commissioners have staked out positions on the half-penny tax hike, with three for and three against. Commissioner Victor Crist has not decided.

At one point, it was thought the vote could come in December, but a series of hurdles made a 2015 vote increasingly unlikely.

Part of the delay is to give county staffers more time to craft a mobility fee system that would charge developers more for the infrastructure needed to support new construction. Staffers moved a December workshop with commissioners to discuss mobility fees, which adds incentives for redevelopment and growth in certain urban zones, to Feb. 4.

Politically, extracting more from developers is key to winning support for any transportation funding plan that asks more of taxpayers.

Also looming, and causing delay, is the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation into a contract to provide public outreach for Go Hillsborough, the county's transportation initiative.

The Sheriff's Office is reviewing whether a $1.35 million deal with Parsons Brinckerhoff was influenced by Beth Leytham, a politically connected Tampa public relations attorney who counts the engineering firm among her clients.

Parsons paid Leytham $175,000 to provide public relations services for Go Hillsborough.

County officials hope the sheriff's review is completed before the end of the year. But that may not be the last legal or ethical inquiry into that deal.

Several citizens have filed complaints to the Florida Commission on Ethics against Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman over their ties to Leytham.

On Wednesday, commissioners voted to pay two lawyers $300 an hour — and up to $20,000 each — to represent Hagan and Murman in light of the ethics complaints.

The vote came during approval of the "consent agenda" — a time when commissioners unanimously approve dozens of items without discussion. Wednesday's agenda included 59 consent agenda items. Murman and Hagan both voted "yes" to move the consent agenda items.

Community activist George Niemann, one of several citizens who filed complaints against Murman and Hagan, objected to the county spending taxpayer dollars on lawyers before the state ethics commissions has completed its investigation.

"Are they spending our tax dollars when they haven't even been charged yet?" Niemann asked during public comment. "It's one mistake after another."

County Attorney Chip Fletcher responded to Niemann's charge in a rare rebuke to a public comment, and said the move was in line with the commission policy to hire legal representation at the onset of an investigation.

"I don't think it's prudent or in anyone's best interest to wait," Fletcher said.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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