TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioners voted Wednesday to restore their original blueprint for spending the one-cent sales tax for transportation that voters approved in November.
The vote took place at a public hearing, where 25 people addressed commissioners about their transportation struggles, their views on the tax and the future of the county. All but three of the speakers asked the commission to honor the will of the voters and reinstate the spending guidelines.
“Properly investing resources in our community that our citizens want to see us do is the right thing to do," Commissioner Kimberly Overman said. "I am very proud we are moving forward and showing leadership.”
The charter amendment approved by voters required that 45 percent of the tax revenue be sent to Hillsborough’s transit agency and that the remaining amount be divided among projects such as intersection improvements and safety.
But the new tax faced legal challenges almost immediately, with Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White filing a lawsuit in December seeking to overturn it. White argued in part that the spending categories usurped power from county commissioners to decide how the money should be spent.
A circuit court judge partially agreed with White, keeping the tax in place but eliminating the percentages dictating how the money should be spent. White appealed that ruling, and the case is now waiting to be heard by the Florida Supreme Court in February.
In the meantime, the circuit judge’s ruling left it to local agencies to decide how to spend the money, in the event the tax is allowed to stand. County Commissioners decided to stick with the voter-approved numbers while the future of the tax plays out in court.
Their new ordinance sets aside 20 percent for maintenance of existing streets, roads and bridges; 26 percent on intersections, 27 percent on safety improvements, 12 percent on bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure and the rest to a general transportation fund.
Several people who addressed the commission Wednesday said they supported the tax because of those allocations, and the accountability they provided for how the revenue would be spent.
“I knew exactly where that money would be spent,” Brant Peterson said. “More importantly, I knew 45 percent of it would be spent to improve our public transit system.”
But opponents, including speakers and commissioners, said those percentages are unbalanced and do not properly account for road projects they would like to see built.
"I have just been a staunch supporter of changing these percentages to help really protect our unincorporated residents, " Commissioner Sandy Murman said, indicating she would oppose the ordinance.
Murman later changed her vote to support reinstating the spending allocations, but said she will fight to change the percentages once the Florida Supreme Court issues a ruling on the legality of the tax.
Earlier this month, attorneys for the Florida House and Senate asked the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling and eliminate the tax. The court is expected to hear arguments in the case in February.