TAMPA — The City Council voted Thursday to pull back about $75,000 it pledged to the Go Hillsborough transportation project.
The council voted on Sept. 3 to pay $74,985 to the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is managing Go Hillsborough's efforts to get public feedback on the idea of a 2016 referendum on whether to raise the sales tax to help pay for transportation projects.
But council members had second thoughts on Sept. 17 after Hillsborough officials decided to ask for an audit of Parsons Brinckerhoff's $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract.
The county's request followed a WTSP 10News report questioning whether Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham tried to steer county officials toward hiring a firm like Parsons Brinckerhoff, which employs her as a subcontractor.
Leytham said she didn't, and transit supporters characterize the TV news reports and the resulting reaction as a tea party-encouraged strategy to torpedo any transit referendum.
"It's the same strategy" that undermined the Greenlight Pinellas sales tax referendum last year, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
The council voted 5-0 to rescind the money without discussion. Charlie Miranda and Yvonne Yolie Capin were out of the room at the time of the vote.
From Marine Corps center to park?
The council also discussed trying to acquire the Marine Corps Reserve Center site in South Tampa so the city can expand A.J. Palonis Jr. Park next door.
The center at 5121 Gandy Blvd., overlooking Tampa Bay, is the home of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion.
Since council member Mike Suarez suggested exploring the idea in April, city officials have learned the Marines are interested in a move, too. Consultants for the Marine Corps told the city that new amphibian vehicles made the existing reserve center problematic without a significant upgrade.
Suarez said he hopes the city could lease the 44-acre reserve center site from its owner, the Florida Department of Transportation. Ideally, he would like to expand Palonis Park's amenities and offerings, perhaps to include kayak, canoe or paddleboard rentals.
That would give paddlers another rest stop on the route from Picnic Island on the south to Cypress Point Park and Ben T. Davis Beach on the north.
"When you're kayaking or canoeing, you need way stations," he said.
At Suarez's request, the council voted to ask Florida's congressional delegation for help moving the battalion to MacDill Air Force Base, which has indicated that there is nothing currently available for the Marine reservists' use.
Another stormwater fee being discussed
Last month, the council voted to increase the city's stormwater fee from $36 to $82 a year for the owners of medium-sized houses.
Officials say that extra money will enable them to clean out ditches, ponds, storm sewer outfalls and street gutters more often.
Still undecided is whether to create a second stormwater assessment to pay for major projects that would increase the capacity of the drainage network to move water in a big storm.
The council spent another 90 minutes on the idea Thursday, but made no decisions beyond scheduling more discussion for Nov. 19.
If approved, that new "improvement assessment" would not go into effect before 2017. It could pay for up to $251 million in new projects and eventually rise to $98 a year for medium-sized homes.
In response to questions the council asked in late August, officials said Tampa could use another method of calculating the assessment, but the one it has — based on the amount of paved surface on a piece of property — is used by 76 percent of communities around Florida.
"If we want to go a long way toward solving this problem, this is the best plan to do it," said Brad Baird, the city's administrator of public works and utility services.
But the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors came out against the idea, as did two council members.
Charlie Miranda said he would have liked to support it, but the plan just didn't accomplish enough for the money.
"I'm a tightwad," he said. "I need something that's foolproof."
Despite the need, Chairman Frank Reddick said many of his east Tampa constituents are older people on fixed incomes.
"I cannot look at those senior citizens when I sit in church and they come up to me and they say, 'Councilman, don't support this,' " he said.
Others said the city can't afford to do nothing.
"All of the issues that we all know exist are going to continue," council member Lisa Montelione said. "We've delayed and we've kicked the can down the road … and we have to address it."