Buses and baseball top Hillsborough County commission's 2018 agenda

People hold signs for and against moving a Confederate memorial during a Hillsborough County Commission meeting in July. The vote to move the monument was one of the to[p issues commissioners faced in 2017. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
People hold signs for and against moving a Confederate memorial during a Hillsborough County Commission meeting in July. The vote to move the monument was one of the to[p issues commissioners faced in 2017. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Dec. 29, 2017

TAMPA — In 2017, Hillsborough County commissioners moved a Confederate monument, planned $812 million in road construction and twice took on the most contentious local issue of all — dog legislation.

What does 2018 have in store for them?

The time may have come for the county to jump-start its transit system, one of the smallest in the country for a region of its size. Three county commissioners — Pat Kemp, Les Miller and Sandy Murman — told the Tampa Bay Times that finding money to expand service for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is at the top of their agenda.

In the new year, Murman, the board chairwoman, hopes to unveil a proposal to financially support HART for the next three to five years and "get them really transformed." Similarly, Miller said commissioners might have to consider raising the tax rate for HART and Kemp wants to allocate county dollars to transit.

"I want to get this done," Murman said. "I want them to be sustainable, a strong-financially transit agency."

The next 12 months also could bring a decision from the Tampa Bay Rays on where they want to play ball. The team and Hillsborough County officials are already engaged in negotiations on how to pay for a ballpark at the edge of Ybor City and the Channel District. A deal with St. Petersburg allowing the Rays to search for a new home expires in January 2019.

BALLPARK NEWS: Next step for Tampa ballpark dreams: How to pay for it.

Hillsborough may soon pass the threshold to become a high tourism impact county, meaning its hotels and motels collected $600 million in room rentals in a calendar year. The distinction allows the county to increase the tourist development tax — the levy assessed on each night's stay at a hotel — from 5 percent to 6 percent. The new revenue could help finance a Rays ballpark. If Hillsborough hits the mark, look for that debate in 2018.

TAX STATUS: Despite Hurricane Irma, Hillsborough remains on pace to unlock hotel tax that could pay for Rays ballpark.

If Florida voters approve a proposed referendum to expand the homestead exemption, and it's expected they will, county officials will have to make difficult budget decisions with less property tax revenue.

SPENDING CUTS: Hillsborough freezes hiring, considers new taxes after lawmakers okay tax cut referendum.

Looming as well is a pivotal November election. With four Republican commissioners up for re-election — Victor Crist, Hagan, Murman and Stacy White — Democrats see a unique opportunity to flip control of the seven-member board. All but White are attempting to move from their current district to another seat on the commission. Meanwhile, Commissioner Al Higginbotham, the fifth Republican, will retire at the end of the year.

PARTY TIME: Hillsborough Democrats have everything going for them except history.

Whether the upcoming election affects the 2018 agenda is a storyline to watch next year.

Here is each commissioner's top priority in 2018.

Sandy Murman, Republican, District 1

"Definitely, for me, it's transportation and economic development — the I-4 corridor, getting that jump started, and transforming HART into a real transit agency. The $812 million for roads we passed this year, we're going to start to see shovels in the ground. We're going to be aggressive in 2018 with transit and getting them to be more of a transit agency. There's a lot on the plate and this will be a very aggressive year for us."

Victor Crist, Republican, District 2

"Flooding and storm water infrastructure is important to my district. I've had a lot meetings where the flooding took place and it's still happening. We're going to need to talk about our failing system and how we can shore it up by better inspections and ensure care and maintenance and what investments we can make that will have the best impact."

Les Miller, Democrat, District 3

"I have two: One is to bring more jobs to Hillsborough County. If this county is going to grow we need more jobs so everyone can have a better quality of life. We need to find more funding for our transportation and transit systems. I'm going to do my very best to push the issue. Transit is going to be in Hillsborough County's budget or we'll be looking at raising the millage for HART."

Stacy White, Republican, District 4

"We definitely need a lot of work with our comprehensive plan. I've always believed the problem is we amend it too often, too much. As we make land use decisions we have to make sure we can afford them and they're sustainable from an economic standpoint and also from an economic development standpoint. When we build homes, residents have to have jobs."

Ken Hagan, Republican, District 5

Did not respond.

Pat Kemp, Democrat, District 6

"HART is the most underfunded transit agency in the nation by a longshot. I would like to see countywide funds immediately directed into operations to increase operations of HART. What the county takes in continues to grow. It's a matter of choice. It's a matter of whether we want to fund this or not. We are falling so behind in all other measures and I tie it to our lack of transit and misguided investments otherwise."

Al Higginbotham, Republican, District 7

"I'm not going to get involved in any more animal issues. That was stressful. One is (the Museum of Science and Industry). I want to work through this transition and get it launched into its next chapter of its life. People are good with what we're doing and understand we're taking deliberate and logical steps for the next direction, which is headed downtown. Also affordable housing. I want to have a discussion about that."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.