TAMPA — An attorney for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority said Monday that his discussions with state officials about scuttled county transportation tax indicate a direct consumer refund isn’t likely and the next step for the $502.3 million sitting unspent may rest in the hands of a Hillsborough County Circuit Court judge.
David Smith, general counsel for the agency, told HART board members that he had spoken by phone with Department of Revenue officials Monday morning, and they had told him they didn’t have the necessary reports to offer refunds.
“I’m not sure why that’s the case but that’s what was indicated in our call. ...They seem to believe that their refund process would not be particularly favorable,” Smith said.
Those same officials told him that because the funds are being held in escrow in Hillsborough County that the “most appropriate process would be that the Circuit Court retain jurisdiction,” Smith said, since the state Supreme Court didn’t give any guidance about what to do with the money.
Lawyers for groups supporting the tax have 15 days to ask the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, but Smith said that course of action wasn’t likely.
The fate of the half-billion dollars collected in Hillsborough County sales taxes over the past 26 months has been the subject of intense interest among opponents and advocates for the tax since the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-1 Thursday that the one-cent on the dollar sales tax was unconstitutional.
Voters approved by the tax by a wide margin in November 2018. Shortly after, Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit challenging the tax.
The tax raised the county’s overall sales tax rate to 8.5 percent, the highest in the state.
The plan called for sending 45 percent of the revenue to the county’s transit authority. The rest would be divided among the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. The Metropolitan Planning Organization would use 1 percent of revenue for transportation planning and oversight.
All For Transportation — the group that spearheaded the charter amendment paving the way for the plan — spelled out how local government agencies could spend their share of the money on needs such as congestion, bus routes, and safer travel for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.
The state Supreme Court justices ruled that this structure illegally usurped power from the county commission, granted sole authority under Florida law for how the money is spent.
Tyler Hudson, a HART board member and an attorney instrumental in advancing the charter amendment, said, in the future, the Supreme Court ruling won’t be seen as a major defeat. He noted there were 617 days until the next election.
“This will be seen as really a very small, small setback in time,” Hudson said.
Another influential transportation advocate and board member, Rena Upshaw-Frazier, said she was very disappointed with the court ruling, but also voiced optimism for the future of the tax.
“Hopefully it serves as a catalyst for what’s to become really major changes in Hillsborough County for transportation,” Upshaw-Frazier said. “I just ask everyone to remain optimistic and vigilant to bring these changes about.”
County Commissioner Pat Kemp said the fact that 57 percent of voters approved the tax shows that the state’s fourth-largest county with more than 1.4 million residents has “come of age.”
“That is such a mandate,” Kemp said. “That showed the pent up desire in this community.”
The court ruling places HART’s finances in flux. About $214 million has been collected and allocated to the agency. HART CEO Adelee Le Grand said the agency is analyzing how the legal defeat will impact previous agreements on wage increases for union workers.