When Hillsborough voters enter the polling booth in November, they will be asked whether the county should implement a 1% sales tax for 30 years to fund transportation needs.
But how, when and if Hillsborough County’s potholed roads, dangerous intersections and skeletal bus routes will be improved is ensnared in a legal challenge yet again.
Last month, Karen Jaroch — a 58-year-old Northdale resident, licensed professional engineer and among the most prolific anti-rail organizers the county has ever seen — filed a lawsuit challenging the ballot language of the transportation surtax referendum due to be posed to Hillsborough voters Nov. 8.
Advocates of the surtax say the referendum offers Hillsborough constituents a solution to the county’s multi-billion-dollar backlog in road and transit projects. Adversaries say it’s a money grab, particularly ill-advised at a time of high inflation.
Both agree the stakes are high. Here’s a primer on the proposed surtax, and the recent lawsuit.
What does the transport tax mean for your wallet?
The proposal raises Hillsborough County’s sales tax from 7.5% to 8.5%, and is expected to generate $342 million in its first full year of collection. If the ballot passes, it will commence Jan. 1, 2023.
As with any sales tax, the more you spend the more you’ll pay. Just like the current county sales tax, you will not be taxed on essential purchases like groceries and prescription drugs.
A Hillsborough County family with an average income would pay about an additional $142 in taxes annually, according to estimates from the Transportation Planning Organization using IRS data. An individual householder with an income of $50,000-$60,000 would pay about $95 per year.
What are you paying for?
If voters approve the tax increase, the money generated will enter a dedicated trust fund maintained by the county’s Clerk of the Circuit Court and divided three ways:
- General Purpose Portion: 54.5% of the proceeds would be split among Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and unincorporated Hillsborough County, based on relative populations.
- Transit Restricted Portion: 45% of the proceeds would be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
- Planning and Development Portion: 0.5% would be set aside for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization for purposes such as data collection and analysis.
The proceeds are not allowed to fund the expansion of right of way or the width of the interstate highway system.
In practice, only Hillsborough County and Tampa likely would need to follow these additional funding priorities. Plant City and Temple Terrace have discretion to spend their shares, as long as funds are spent on transportation.
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The county and the three cities will be able to collaborate, pursuing funding partnerships with each other or with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, known commonly by the acronym HART.
The proceeds HART receives are subject to a proposed funding formula, too.
What oversight will there be?
Each agency spending transportation surtax dollars must present their proposed spending plans annually for public hearing.
The county’s Clerk of the Circuit Court must also engage an independent accounting firm to conduct an annual audit of the distribution and expenditure of the proceeds.
An 11-member citizen committee will be established to oversee expenditure. The committee will be a mix of local experts and city and county leaders, reflecting “the diversity of the local community,” according to the county ordinance.
And at least every five years following the enactment of the surtax, the Board of County Commissioners will review the distribution of proceeds, making sure it is consistent with the goals and policies of the county’s Long Range Transportation Plan.
What about the lawsuit?
The ballot, written by the county and approved by commissioners, asks voters if they approve a one-cent sales tax that would continue for three decades to fund transportation improvements. It includes the names of prospective Hillsborough recipients of the funding — Tampa and Plant City, for example — and projects, such as road widening, bridge repairs and bus service enhancements.
Jaroch, her lawyer and her supporters contend such language is convoluted and misleading. They say the ballot fails the state requirement for a simple and narrow question.
“This lawsuit is about getting the government to be honest with the people,” Jaroch wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “The ballot language deludes people into thinking their vote will build and widen roads in Brandon or expand public transit options in Town ‘n’ Country for thirty years.”
The Board of County Commissioners must “stop making promises it knows it can’t keep,” she wrote.
Jaroch’s lawsuit marks another twist in the years-long, ever-meandering fight over transportation funding in the county.
Confused? Advocates of the transportation tax say that is part of the lawsuit’s ambition: a ploy to stir uncertainty about the tax.
“The goal is to confuse people,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen, adding he found the lawsuit disappointing, but not surprising.
“The public needs to vote on this,” he said. “There is broad consensus in this community that our transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of major improvement.”
When the Hillsborough County Commission voted to allow an initiative onto the 2010 ballot that would fund a light-rail system as well as road improvements and bus route expansion with an additional one-cent sales-tax, Jaroch co-founded No Tax for Tracks which lead the ultimately successful opposition.
In 2018, No Tax For Tracks regrouped. But Hillsborough voters approved a charter amendment, with 57% saying yes to a one-cent-sales tax to pay for transit, bike, pedestrian and road projects.
A legal saga then ensued, and the Florida Supreme Court ultimately voided the surtax last year after a challenge from County Commissioner Stacy White, who said it was unconstitutional because spending allocations were determined by a referendum formula rather than by elected commissioners. The more than $560 million collected between January 2019 and spring 2021 when the surtax was struck down remains in limbo.
Cohen and other surtax advocates say the necessary changes have been made this time around to avoid the legal fate of the 2018 referendum.