TAMPA — Hillsborough County is poised to spend nearly $700,000 to engage the community on a single topic — transportation.
County commissioners on Thursday will consider a $699,958 work order with engineering firm HNTB Corp. to provide “support for transportation community engagement efforts” in advance of the November referendum on a proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation.
The work will include holding community meetings, developing and distributing printed material, answering inquiries from news media and the public, and preparing public presentations and content for social media and the web. The firm also will coordinate with the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization on the public information campaign.
If voters approve, the tax is projected to raise $342 million in its first full year. It calls for 45 percent of the proceeds to be earmarked for the transit authority. The county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would divide 54.5 percent based on their populations, and one-half percent would be set aside for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.
The HNTB contract is just about half of the $1.35 million the county spent to gauge public interest in a transportation sales tax proposal six years ago. The effort, dubbed Go Hillsborough, never made it to voters after a then-commission majority declined to put the tax question on the November 2016 ballot.
Two years later, voters approved a 1 percent sales tax for transportation by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. The Florida Supreme Court later voided the tax after a challenge from Commissioner Stacy White. He contended the measure was unconstitutional because the spending was not determined by elected public officials.
Commissioner Gwen Myers pointed to the 2018 results in supporting the HNTB contract and the new sales tax referendum.
“There’s some people who didn’t support it the first time, but the voters — I want to make it real plain — the voters see the need and why we need to get this tax passed. They’re tired of sitting in traffic,” she said.
Under state law, governments can educate the public, but not advocate for referenda. The commission tabbed HNTB for the project on May 4, but the amount of the contract had not been negotiated at the time. White cast the only vote voted against hiring HNTB.
“It is easy for the lines between advocacy and education to be blurred,” said White. “I wasn’t willing to vote for a measure that could lead to blurred lines.”
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The county has said it faces a $1.5 billion shortfall to expand and improve its transportation system over the next decade, plus another $700 million to maintain transportation facilities. The transit authority, funded now by an annual property tax, has said it requires an additional $10.9 billion over the next 30 years for vehicles and other changes to provide better service.
One tax opponent said the public already is aware of the county’s transportation issues.
“It is odd the county wants to spend $700,000 to inform the public about the ‘current state of transportation’ when the public already knows because they deal with it everyday,” said Sharon Calvert of the group Fix Our Roads First. “It (HNTB contract) looks more like a taxpayer-funded messaging campaign precariously walking on a very tight rope.”