TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission was supposed to use Thursday's workshop to discuss how to spend the hundreds of millions that will be raised by its new transportation sales tax.
Instead, they found themselves once again embroiled in commissioner Stacy White's legal challenge, which threatens to undo the 1 percent sales tax hike approved by 57 percent of the voters in November.
"I did not come here to debate whether the people knew what they were doing or did not know what they were doing — it passed," said commission chair Les Miller. "I hope we come to workshops from this point on trying to put together a program or a plan for utilizing the tax and not spend our time debating the merits of the tax itself.
"That's for the judge to decide and I hope the judge decides to give the people what they voted for."
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This was to be the first in a series of workshops where commissioners would start building a plan to spend the tax, which the Florida Department of Revenue estimates will raise $302 million to pay for transportation projects in 2019. Based on those estimates, the tax has already raised an estimated $500,000 since the start of the year.
But a brief presentation from county Infrastructure Services Administrator John Lyons explained that the commissioners are restricted in how they can allocate the money. That underscored the December legal challenge filed by White, when he sued the county, its cities, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
White's lawsuit seeks to invalidate the 30-year transportation tax by arguing that it violates state law because it transfers the authority to spend the revenue away from elected commissioners to an "independent oversight committee" of non-elected citizens created by the amendment.
The language in the amendment misled voters, White claims, and severely limits the ways the money can be spent. Any county projects funded by the estimated $110 million raised annually must be spent under five categories: An estimated $22 million must go to "maintenance and vulnerability reduction;" $28.6 million for "congestion reduction" projects; $29.7 million is to be spent on "transportation safety improvements;" $13.2 million on "transportation network improvements;" and the remaining $16.5 million would go to a "general purpose" fund to pay for projects already identified by the county.
"A 'quote' plan has to be developed so that these fit into these five buckets, and that is bad policy," White said. "It's unfortunate, it's inconsistent with state statutes, plain and simple, that spell out these transportation tax dollars are to be spent in any amount, in any proportion, as deemed appropriate by the county commission."
"That's not what's happening here. We're being forced to come up with a 'quote' plan based upon what will fit into these five buckets and that's just not right."
But the rest of the commission is fighting back against White's lawsuit. Earlier this month they voted 6-1 (White was the lone no vote) to file another lawsuit that would allow the courts to decide the merits of the charter amendment once and for all. The county filed a Feb. 7 motion for a "bond validation hearing" to ask a circuit judge if the commission can legally issue a $10 million bond for projects that would be approved under the amendment, said county attorney for litigation Alan Zimmet.
If the judge rules in the commission's favor, the county can start issuing bonds for tax-funded transportation projects. Any appeal would automatically be sent to the Florida Supreme Court, so any questions about the tax's validity would be settled much faster than the timeline for resolving White's lawsuit.
"Voters demanded action on transportation in November and we are thankful that the County Commission positively responded to those demands," said a statement from All For Transportation member Christina Barker, the political committee that backed the referendum. "Swiftly pursuing an interlocal agreement and authorizing bonds puts us one step closer to safer streets and shorter commutes for everybody in Hillsborough County."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.