Hillsborough sticks with transit emphasis in sales tax plan

The transit authority will receive 45 percent of the tax money if voters agree in November.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would receive 45 percent of the proceeds of a sales tax for transportation if voters approve the referendum in November.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would receive 45 percent of the proceeds of a sales tax for transportation if voters approve the referendum in November.
Published March 23, 2022|Updated March 23, 2022

TAMPA — After more than two years of discussions, five town hall meetings, three transportation workshops, and 95 minutes of debate Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners decided not to detour from the earlier path traveled by a transportation sales tax referendum.

By a 6-1 vote, the commission said mass transit should receive 45 percent of the tax proceeds if voters approve the referendum in November. Commissioner Stacy White dissented.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would have received that same percentage under the 2018 referendum that was approved by 57 percent of the voters. The Florida Supreme Court voided the 1 percent sales tax last year after a challenge from White. He said the tax was unconstitutional because spending allocations were determined by a referendum formula rather than by elected commissioners.

Wednesday, commissioners needed to start planning an ordinance on the proposed tax to be considered at a public hearing and final commission vote next month. Commissioner Gwen Myers, who made the renewed referendum a priority during her 2020 election campaign, initially suggested giving the transit authority 42 percent of the proceeds. She backtracked and lowered it to 40 percent after realizing she had made a mathematical error.

Myers and fellow Commissioners Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith sit on the transit agency’s board of directors. The authority has said it is facing a $10.9 billion shortfall in its 30-year transportation plan.

Kemp, Overman and Smith wouldn’t budge from the 45 percent allocation even after Commissioner Harry Cohen, White and Myers said they would support going to 42 percent.

“Forty-five percent gets us to a modest, basic transit system in this county. I don’t see how we do less than that,” said Kemp.

The 1 percent sales tax generated approximately $21.5 million a month during the 26 months it was in effect. That meant the difference between 42 percent and 45 percent of the allocation boiled down to an additional $645,000 a month, or $7.7 million a year, for the transit agency.

Overman, the commission’s chairperson, said clarity for voters was important and it would be a mistake to alter the formula used in 2018.

“The current political environment is not one of great trust in government or elected officials,” she said.

The six-person majority eventually agreed, though it did support halving the allocation to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

Under the language approved Wednesday, the county and three cities would divide 54.5 percent of the tax proceeds according to their populations. The transit agency would receive 45 percent and the remaining half percent would go to the planning organization.

Prior to the discussion, several speakers addressed the commission and endorsed the sales tax proposal.

“The time to invest in Hillsborough County’s future is now,” said retired physician Bruce Shephard.

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Land use lawyer Ron Weaver; Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay; Lynda Remund, president and CEO of the Tampa Downtown Partnership and Andy Mayts, chairperson of the Tampa Bay Chamber’s board of directors, also spoke in favor of the sales tax.

Transit critic Sharon Calvert offered the opposing view and said road construction should be the priority in the county’s spending.

Afterward, Tyler Hudson, co-chairperson of the citizens group All For Transportation that advocated for the referendum in 2018, lauded the commission’s vote.

“We are thankful to the leadership of the county commission today as they take steps to bring this critical issue back to voters this year,” Hudson said.

Still to be determined by the courts is how the proceeds from the voided tax will be distributed. Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Cindy Stuart told commissioners Wednesday that the tax collections stood at $562 million, including more than $80 million that came in after the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in February 2021.