HART’s interim chief Carolyn House Stewart steps down

Stewart emailed notice of her resignation to the transit agency’s chair and attorney Monday night.
A Hillsborough transit Route 30 bus waits for passengers at the Northwest Transfer Center in Tampa.
A Hillsborough transit Route 30 bus waits for passengers at the Northwest Transfer Center in Tampa.
Published Sept. 29, 2020|Updated Sept. 29, 2020

TAMPA — The interim chief executive for Hillsborough’s transit agency stepped down from the leadership role Monday.

Carolyn House Stewart sent a one-sentence email to the transit agency’s attorney and chair announcing her resignation. The email did not include a reason for the decision.

Stewart served as the interim chief of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority for nearly a year. The head of the agency’s risk and legal departments, she was appointed to the chief executive’s position in November when Ben Limmer was placed on paid leave during an investigation.

Carolyn House Stewart resigned as the interim chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
Carolyn House Stewart resigned as the interim chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Limmer resigned in the spring and Stewart kept her role as interim chief. Les Miller, transit authority chair at the time, later proposed hiring Stewart as permanent chief but his motion failed to win the support of the board.

Instead, board members decided to launch a national search for a new executive. New chair Mariella Smith said Monday that 170 people had applied for the opening.

Related: Hillsborough transit agency to conduct national search for new executive

Miller said he spoke with Stewart briefly Monday. She said she knew she wouldn’t get the chief executive job permanently but would continue to work in her role as head of risk and legal.

“She didn’t want to be in a position where the new CEO came in and would tell her where she would end up,” Miller said. “She had worked hard and brought us through some tremendously troubled times."

Miller praised Stewart for her ability to guide the agency through a pandemic. He said the resignation sends a message to the public “that the agency is in turmoil.”

Mariella Smith disagreed, saying the agency has faced challenges in the last 18 months but has “very good people” who have pulled together to face those challenges, including a pandemic.

David Smith, attorney for the transit authority, told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that all board members were notified of Stewart’s decision and that he had a conference call scheduled with transit authority members Tuesday afternoon to discuss next steps.

“We are evaluating the processes that may apply," David Smith said.

Smith on Tuesday told the Times the board will appoint a new interim CEO at a special Oct. 14 meeting that was already scheduled to discuss the ongoing search for a permanent one. Until then, she designated interim chief financial officer Cyndy Stiglich as the signatory for the agency.

Stewart notified the attorney in a separate email Monday that she would remain in her position as direct of risk and legal services.

Her announcement came just hours after the transit authority board approved its largest budget to date.

The transit agency is poised to spend more than $150 million next year on bus service, new vehicles, a maintenance building, employee benefits and other costs after the board approved its budget Monday night.

This comes in spite of declining ridership, complications from COVID-19, and the uncertainty of a one-cent transportation sales tax currently under review by the Florida Supreme Court.

The budget is nearly $30 million more than last year, a difference to be made up mostly by coronavirus relief money. The federal CARES act will pay for more than $24 million in operating expenses next year.

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Apart from state and federal grants, property taxes are a major source of income for the transit authority. Board members approved a property tax rate of 50 cents per $1,000, the most the authority can levy. The rate means a $100 levy for the owner of a home valued for tax purposes at $200,000.

The agency is expected to take in an additional $4 million in property taxes from the year before.

Miller said the agency needs to look at raising the tax rate, which he advocated for when he served as chair of the transit authority. This is especially necessary, he said, if the Florida Supreme Court overturns the transportation sales tax that county voters approved in November 2018.

“HART is an agency that continues to operate the best it can with some woefully underfunded dollars,” Miller said. “The HART board should bite the bullet and look at ad valorem (taxes)... If you don’t do that pretty soon, the situation that HART’s in right now will get worse, and it will not meet the needs of those who need it most.”

Hillsborough’s transit authority receives less money per person than agencies in cities of similar sizes.

The 2021 budget, bolstered by the coronavirus relief money, is nearly 25 percent higher than the year before and 50 percent more than 2018.

The operating budget — the money spent running buses and providing service throughout the county — will be nearly $96 million. That’s a 15 percent increase from the year before.

The capital budget, which pays for buses, stations, facilities and new construction, will almost double. The transit agency plans to spend about $55 million on capital projects next year.