TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners plan to give an extra $2.1 million to the county’s cash-strapped bus agency to increase the frequency of buses on some of its most popular routes.
But the money comes with conditions that could mean replacement of the agency’s top executive.
Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to earmark the money for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit but only if the agency conducts a statewide and, if needed, nationwide search for a new chief executive officer. They also want the agency to seek additional funding from the city of Tampa.
The idea came from Commissioner Les Miller, who stressed that it’s not a vote of no confidence in HART interim chief executive Jeff Seward. But Seward’s position has become increasingly shaky in recent months, culminating in a July 16 meeting when six of HART’s governing board members — including Commissioners Sandy Murman and Stacy White — voted to search for a new CEO. The vote ended in a tie, meaning it failed to pass.
Miller, who also serves on HART’s board, has frequently voiced his support for appointing Seward on a permanent basis. He said agreeing to a search was a compromise to get HART extra funding it desperately needs. He hopes Seward will apply.
"The bottom line is HART needs money," Miller said.
The uncertainty over HART’s leadership comes at a critical point for both the agency and the future of transportation in Hillsborough. If successful, a citizen-led ballot initiative to raise sales tax for transportation would increase HART’s annual budget from $70 million to about $200 million in 2019. The agency would be in charge of developing a transit system linking the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa and Westshore.
Seward is contracted to serve as interim CEO through November. He was promoted from chief financial officer to replace Katharine Eagan, who left after three years at the helm.
At the HART meeting, with Seward sitting at their side, several board members said the agency must look to appoint the best person possible to lead the agency.
Among those expressing the sentiment were Kathleen Shanahan, a businesswoman and former chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who said it seems Pinellas, not Hillsborough, is leading the region in transportation.
Murman said Seward does not fill the shoes of Eagan in terms of his qualifications. HART could have an influx of millions of dollars from the transportation initiative and needs a leader who will "move and shake the Earth as far as transit is concerned, she said.
"Are we ready for that? I’m not sure," Murman said.
At the same meeting, Seward received support and praise for his performance as interim CEO. That included Miller, who said a search would be a waste of tax dollars.
"We have the person we need in this agency sitting here," he said.
Seward’s contract allows for him to return to his position as chief financial officer if the board does not appoint him. He said he is not disheartened by the calls to look for someone else.
"I am beyond happy that the Board of County Commissioners is looking at additional funding for HART," Seward said. "The board needs to make sure they have the right person to move us forward. I support that discussion."
The commissioners’ attempt to persuade Tampa to pay more in direct funding to HART seems unlikely to succeed. The city had to make up a $5 million budget deficit this year.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Like the rest of the county, property owners in Tampa pay a portion of taxes to fund HART. About 39 percent of Hillsborough’s countywide property tax levy also comes from residents of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.