TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners will hear about a proposed sales tax referendum later this month. They already got an earful from one of their own Wednesday about disposing of $562 million collected under the prior transportation levy.
“If we can’t work together on this board and we’re going to fight, it might as well be a fight that’s worth it,” said Commissioner Stacy White.
White’s legal challenge to the 1 percent sales tax, approved by voters in November 2018, resulted in the Florida Supreme Court ruling the surcharge was unconstitutional. The tax, in effect for 26 months, generated $562 million that remains in escrow.
White, in a Feb. 17 letter to state legislators, endorsed allowing lawmakers to decide how to spend the proceeds, and he suggested part of the money be earmarked for construction of Lithia Pinecrest Road in his eastern Hillsborough district.
Wednesday, however, White renounced his support for that deal and criticized the citizens group All for Transportation, which advocated for the original referendum and backed the legislative remedy. White renewed his call for a sales tax holiday as a refund mechanism.
White also said he was taken aback by a memorandum from commission chairperson Kimberly Overman questioning why the legislative remedy hadn’t come before the full board.
“The lack of transparency and process around these events is quite unsettling and I have no desire to harm our ability to represent our residents with clarity and ethical resolve,” Overman said in an April 5 memorandum to the rest of the board.
Wednesday, she told White, “I don’t look for a fight. I look for an opportunity for a solution.”
She said she feared allowing a refund to be handled via a separate court case from White’s legal team in Leon County Circuit Court could permit attorney fees to absorb as much as 30 percent of the escrowed dollars.
The remedy initially supported by White was spelled out in a provision contained in the state budget that has not yet been signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It called for the legislative conference committee to earmark the money for transportation projects if a court sends the dollars to the Department of Revenue for disbursement. The language also was backed by All for Transportation, but White said Wednesday the group hadn’t acted honorably and hadn’t worked hard enough to build support for the legislative solution.
“We were incredibly disappointed by it,” Christina Barker, co-founder of All for Transportation, said of White’s criticism.
“Publicly and privately, everyday since June 2018, all we have done is support transportation dollars coming back to the county for projects the county desperately needs,” Barker told the Tampa Bay Times. “Since the lawsuit, we have been very consistent that those dollars should come back to Hillsborough County and be spent on transportation projects. We have never wavered from that publicly or privately.”
The dustup overshadowed the move to schedule a public hearing on a proposed referendum for the November ballot. On a 5-2 party-line vote, the commission said the hearing will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, in the commission chambers.
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White and Commissioner Ken Hagan, the two Republicans on the commission, dissented.
Hagan acknowledged his prior positions supporting sending tax referendums to voters. Wednesday, he said his objection was guided by too much focus on transit, the still escrowed proceeds from the earlier sales tax and the current inflationary economy punctuated by high gasoline prices.
“It’s the wrong plan at the wrong time and not at all in the best interests of our community,” Hagan said.
If the commission approves the ordinance and voters concur in November, the 1 percent sales tax would begin Jan. 1. It is projected to raise $342 million in its first full year of collections.