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Hillsborough commissioner: Keep voting on sales tax

Commissioner Gwen Myers said the county will appeal a judge’s ruling voiding the transportation tax referendum.
 
Traffic travels west bound along West Hillsborough Avenue at the intersection of North Himes Avenue. Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers said the public should still vote on a transportation tax referendum while the county appeals a judge's ruling blocking the Nov. 8 referendum. [TIMES (2020)]
Traffic travels west bound along West Hillsborough Avenue at the intersection of North Himes Avenue. Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers said the public should still vote on a transportation tax referendum while the county appeals a judge's ruling blocking the Nov. 8 referendum. [TIMES (2020)] [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 11, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer has to tell voters that casting a ballot for a proposed sales tax won’t matter. Commissioner Gwen Myers, one of the leading proponents of the transportation surtax, has different advice — keep voting.

The mixed messages are part of the fallout from Circuit Court Judge Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe’s ruling blocking a proposed Nov. 8 referendum for a 30-year, 1% sales tax for transportation.

The decision, given verbally from the bench after a two-hour hearing Monday, is not yet in writing, but is expected to include directions to Latimer on how to proceed, Moe said.

“Ballots have already been printed, so we will post notices to voters pursuant to the court’s order,” said Gerri Kramer, spokesperson for the elections office. “The notices will be in vote-by-mail packets, in privacy booths at voting locations and on our web site.”

The office already has mailed 323,000 mail ballots. Early voting begins Oct. 24. Myers said the public should still cast their votes on the referendum.

“We’re going to appeal this and ask voters to keep voting for this while it’s on the ballot now,” said Myers.

If the commission votes to appeal, it could include a request for a stay — officially delaying Moe’s order until the Second District Court of Appeal hears the case. The commission scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss the ruling, a potential appeal, and hiring outside counsel.

“It is my understanding that if a stay is entered relating to the final order the voters of Hillsborough County can continue to cast their votes on the referendum.” said commission chairperson Kimberly Overman. “From the beginning, it has been the intentions of the board for the citizens to vote on the transportation referendum and I believe our residents know how important the transportation issues are in Hillsborough County.”

Myers, who has championed the tax referendum since her 2020 election to the commission, initially said she would consider scheduling a special election if an appeal is successful.

“My position it to get this done this year to get it to the voters,” she told the Tampa Bay Times.

Later, she backed away from that idea and, instead, advocated exclusively for the appeal and for voters to proceed in casting ballots for the referendum.

State law requires sales tax referendums to be considered by voters in general elections, which rules out a special election. If the county appeals and is unsuccessful, the earliest a future referendum could be scheduled is 2024.

Even that timing could prove problematic politically. The 0.5% sales tax, known as the community investment tax, expires in 2026 and commissioners had been expected to consider asking voters to renew it. Through 2020, that voter-approved tax had generated d $2.3 billion. It financed construction of Raymond James Stadium as well as fire stations, libraries, parks, roads, bridges, sidewalks and drainage work.

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The 1% sales tax proposal was earmarked exclusively for transportation, including mass transit, road, intersection and sidewalk construction and other projects.

Karen Jaroch of Northdale, a regional coordinator for the conservative group, Heritage Action for America, and a former board member for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, challenged the referendum ballot as “ambiguous and misleading.” Her attorney, Samuel Salario, argued the ballot broke state law because it cited types of transportation fixes and specific geographic locations around the county the tax could finance. Moe agreed, saying, ““It misleads the public.”

The transit authority and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace filed a joint motion last week to intervene in the case. Moe did not rule on that request.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Tuesday the city would “support the county every way possible.”

“Our community’s future hinges on solving our transportation crisis. I hope the County Commission looks at every option to make sure voters will have their say on their critical issue on Nov. 8,” Castor said.

All for Transportation, the citizens group advocating for the referendum, declined comment Tuesday. After the ruling Monday, Tyler Hudson, co-founder of he organization, said the only losers in the case were residents of Hillsborough County who “again had their opportunity to fix our broken transportation system delayed. We will continue to pay the high price of doing nothing and the call for action will only grow louder.”