GIBSONTON — The first vote was the easy one. The Hillsborough County Commission on Tuesday night unanimously approved charging developers more to help pay for the county's mounting transportation costs.
The second vote, though, will be the hard one.
The will take place Wednesday night, when the seven commissioners will wrestle with a much harder decision: whether to put a half-cent sales tax to fund decades of transportation improvements on the November ballot.
That vote will be unlikely to go as off as smoothly as Tuesday's vote at East Bay High School. Commissioners approved a new mobility fee plan that, starting Jan. 1, would require developers to pay more to cover the cost of the transportation improvements needed to support the growth they bring.
"It's clear that growth hasn't paid for itself in Hillsborough County," County Commissioner Stacy White said. "We simply cannot make the mistakes we have in the past."
The decision whether to let voters decide whether to raise the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements has been three years in the making. That's how long the county has spent planning, debating and politicking how to best tackle a $750 million backlong of road needs and pay for new projects that will benefit everyone who drives, walks, bikes or takes the bus in Hillsborough County. A similar referendum was rejected by 58 percent of the voters in 2010.
However, on the eve of Wednesday's crucial vote the commission has not yet settled on what exactly the sales tax will look like. The county has proposed a 30-year tax and business leaders have endorsed a tax of at least 20 years. Some commissioners, however, believe a 10-year tax would be an acceptable compromise — one that has already been rejected by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
The action commissioners took Tuesday will stand regardless of whether or not they approve or reject the sales tax. The mobility fees ordinance they approved contains language in it that determines rates for all scenarios: no sales tax and sales taxes that span either 10, 20, 25 or 30 years.
If commissioners — and then the county's voters — approve a sales tax hike, the amount of money developers would be required to pay decreases. The idea behind that fee range is that those developers would also be paying for transportation through the new sales tax.
"There is a benefit to having a sales tax in place to identify lower fees," said Chief Development and Infrastructure Services Administrator Lucia Garsys. "That doesn't mean someone's not paying their full share. They're paying it through a different revenue, and that would be the sales tax."
Several commissioners and members of the public — the crowd totalled about 100 people, nearly 25 of whom spoke — raised concerns about the number of outstanding credits that exist. Developers hold more than $90 million in credits they can use to offset future fees.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
That means even though the new fee structure could ultimately bring in $35 million a year for roads, sidewalks and transit, county staff says it will likely bring in between $5 and $14 million in the first 10 years.
That's precisely why passing a sales tax is so critical, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said.
"By honoring credits in the first 10 years, we're going to see less revenue," Merrill said. "That's what's driving the need for some other revenue source that's reliable, consistent, long-term and flexible to fill the gap. There really isn't much latitude to work within the model."
Before deciding whether to let voters have their say in November, last week commissioners last week unanimously approved a $905 million list of projects to complete in the next 10 years, including new and widened roads in suburban Hillsborough, bus rapid transit in Brandon and a ferry connecting MacDill Air Force Base and SouthShore.
But the decision on how to fund transportation has divided commissioners and county residents in recent years.
Tuesday's vote was the first step taken by the county to allocate money for those projects. Mobility fees are expected to bring in between $5 and $35 million a year, depending on how many credits are outstanding at the time and whether a sales tax passes.
The proposed sales tax commissioners will vote on is projected to raise $117.5 million annually. That money would be split between the county, its three cities and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
Additionally, the commission recently directed staff to allocate anywhere from a third to half of future growth in county property tax revenues to transportation. At a minimum, that would bring in $8 million in fiscal year 2017, though county staff is recommending an even larger percentage go toward transportation.
If the other two sources pass, that means the county, cities and bus system could together collect between $130 million to $160 million a year in new revenue to spend on transportation projects.
"Clearly a broad-based funding strategy is needed if we want to address our transportation funding crisis," Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "Again, if the goal is to maximize total revenue, a 30 year sales tax duration is needed."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.