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  1. Transportation

Another transportation funding proposal emerges in Hillsborough County just before key vote

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County commissioner whose vote has helped sway the fate of several major transportation proposals this year is now offering a last-minute alternative of his own to pay for much-needed road work.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham wants the board to commit $600 million of the county budget over the next 10 years to transportation, starting with $35 million in 2017 and increasing the amount by $5 million each year after. Safety projects and back maintenance would get top priority.

That's about $220 million less than Commissioner Sandy Murman's proposal to dedicate one-third of future growth in property and sales tax revenues to transportation. But Higginbotham said his plan is more stable and reliable because it won't be subject to swings in property values.

It is Higginbotham's intention for commissioners to weigh both proposals during today's County Commission meeting. Higginbotham hopes this is the elusive compromise that can finally win over four votes. Commissioners have already twice rejected a proposal to raise the sales tax by a half-cent for 20 years and 30 years.

At least three other commissioners — Les Miller, Ken Hagan and Kevin Beckner — have expressed reservations about Murman's proposal.

"This addresses the concerns of my colleagues, but I also think it addresses the transportation needs of the county," Higginbotham said.

The board voted 6 to 1 on Aug. 10 to advance Murman's proposal to a vote. Higginbotham's plan was first sent to commissioners last week and was included on the agenda for the meeting that was released to the public Friday.

A decision is needed today because the budget is scheduled for adoption Sept. 15.

Higginbotham said he had "grave concerns" after bond advisers warned in August that Murman's proposal could threaten the county's AAA bond rating. Requiring 33 percent of sales and property tax revenue could put the county at risk of not paying debts already tied to those revenue streams.

County Administrator Mike Merrill also said it could lead to a cut in county services. Merrill said he plans to recommend Higginbotham's proposal at today's meeting.

"I feel like what he's got is a good place to be," Merrill said. "I can recommend that and feel comfortable that we're not going to harm our credit ratings and we're not going to hurt services for residents, and it's a meaningful commitment to transportation rather than a projected growth in revenues."

Murman could not be reached for comment.

While it would mean less money over the next decade if approved, Higginbotham's proposal would put more toward transportation initially — $120 million during the first three years. Murman's proposal would bring in about $820 million, but more than half would come in the final three years of the 10-year plan, according to county projections, and about $90 million in the first three years.

Under both scenarios, future boards could vote to override these transportation allocations. Higginbotham, though, requires a supermajority of commissioners, five of seven, to deviate from his plan.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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