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  1. Transportation

Despite questions, new transportation proposal barreling down the road in Hillsborough

“I do believe it’s going to work for our citizens,” Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman said.
“I do believe it’s going to work for our citizens,” Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman said.
Published Jul. 29, 2016

TAMPA — After spending a year and seven figures on a transportation plan they ultimately scrapped, Hillsborough County commissioners are now sprinting toward a new solution that is so far sketchy on details.

The alternative proposal is completely different from the half-cent sales tax hike that commissioners rejected in June. Instead, taxes would stay at current rates and the county would dedicate one-third of all future growth in tax revenues toward roads, bridges, sidewalks and transit.

This plan is quickly gaining steam at the urging of Sandy Murman and Stacy White, two commissioners who fought against the sales tax surcharge. Commissioners voted Thursday to hold an Aug. 10 public hearing to consider the new proposal.

"I do believe it's going to work for our citizens," Murman said. "I believe we have enough revenue growth."

There's a sense of urgency to get this done before the county budget is approved on Sept. 15. If that happens, commissioners will have spent just three months weighing a momentous shift in county policy. The proposal calls for creating a countywide tax increment finance, or TIF, district, which is relatively untested.

Compare that to deliberations over the half-cent sales tax surcharge, which underwent dozens of meetings and a year of scrutiny from the commission, other local governments, the media and the public. And those debates were grounded in detailed breakdowns of how much the tax would raise and how it would be spent.

So far, none of those particulars have emerged for the new plan.

Proponents project that it would bring in about $1 billion over the next decade, with about half of that coming in the later years. That's based on growth estimates taken from county Administrator Mike Merrill's recommended budget through 2020 and an estimated 5 percent increase in revenue after that.

The county staff has so far not confirmed those figures. They estimated the half-cent sales tax would have raised an average of $117.5 million a year.

Merrill, who strongly recommended the sales tax option, has said the new plan would likely eat into funding for other services as costs go up and the county grows.

White doubted that.

"I don't think we're going to have consequences," White said. "You may see some legacy projects and wants fall by the wayside, but you certainly won't see any needs."

With the unsuccessful sales tax surcharge, a portion of the revenue was earmarked for Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Under the new proposal, Murman said she would like to give at least $5 million a year to HART and some to the cities. But how much they receive would be decided by commissioners each year.

"They need to come to us every year when we're doing the budget," Murman said. "Make a project-based request so that we can analyze it just like we do with all these other projects."

Even as the county heads down this road with gusto, it's unclear whether it has the four votes needed to pass. Commissioner Ken Hagan, a strong advocate of the tax, remained critical of the proposal Thursday.

"I want to see the future issues and the cuts that will be needed in future years," Hagan said to Merrill. "Show we can absorb it."

Commissioner Al Higginbotham previously voted to advance the proposal to keep the dialogue going. But he remains skeptical, he told the Tampa Bay Times after the meeting.

"I'm not sold on it," he said. "Period."

The uncertainty is starting to affect the 2017 budget. Commissioners on Thursday moved to delay a series of scheduled up-or-down votes on projects until after the transportation issue is resolved.

White said he was not concerned about the quick turnaround. He said this is a much simpler proposal than the sales tax surcharge, which would have needed approval from voters in a November referendum.

Said White: "The public will have ample opportunity to weigh in."

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

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