Hillsborough commission rejects transportation sales tax 4-3

Published April 28 2016
Updated April 28 2016

TAMPA — After three years of planning, debate and controversy, Hillsborough County is right back where it started: with no idea how to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transportation needs.

The county commission voted 4-3 on Wednesday night to reject the proposed 30-year, half-cent sales tax, refusing to put it on the November ballot and letting voters decide.

Commissioner Victor Crist, long considered the swing vote, swung against the plan around 10:15 p.m. after residents and commissioners spent four hours debating the measure.

Crist said he would anger half the room no matter what he chose, so he made his decision based "on simple, old fashioned intuition."

"Sadly tonight a majority of the County Commission has refused to give the citizens of Hillsborough County an opportunity to decide for themselves whether their future includes a better transportation system," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in an email to the Tampa Bay Times after the vote. "For over a million of our neighbors and businesses the chance to vote for a better future was denied.

"Rather than a profile in courage this vote was a profile in cowardice."

Commissioner Sandy Murman also opposed the tax. She had come out against the plan months ago, but on Wednesday briefly entertained the 30-year option thanks to a compromise pitched by Commissioner Kevin Beckner. But then she quickly reverted.

"We're asking (voters) to trust us with a blank check for 30 years," Murman said. "I cannot go there."

Commissioner Ken Hagan made a last-ditch attempt to get some kind of transportation tax on the ballot, making a motion for a 20-year tax.

That was also defeated 4-3. Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Stacy White, who have always opposed any half-cent tax, joined Crist and Murman in voting against both plans.

Commissioners Les Miller, Beckner and Hagan all voted for the plan.

"I thank the support of Commissioners Beckner, Miller and Hagan," Buckhorn said.

County Administrator Mike Merrill, who has long championed the 30-year plan, said he did not expect the outcome of Wednesday's vote. He offered no further comment.

Murman asked the board to hold yet another transportation workshop in the near future. It passed unanimously.

"I am very disappointed that after years of work this board was not able to build consensus," Beckner said. "I do look forward to the continued dialogue at our upcoming meeting and I'm hopeful that we might still be able to come to a consensus on such an important community issue as transportation."

The evening started when more than 200 people gathered at All People's Life Center to share their views on a sales tax projected to raise $117.5 million a year for road and transit projects throughout the county for the next three decades.

But entering the meeting it was unclear whether the commission would approve the half-cent plan — or any of the plans pitched at the last-minute. While county staff and consultants put together a 30-year sales tax plan, some commissioners seem to favor a 10-year plan as a compromise. That was the plan Beckner tried to pitch, one Buckhorn and other transit advocates blasted in the days leading up to the vote.

Once residents had their say, Hagan moved to approve the 30-year tax. Miller seconded the motion.

Then Beckner tried to swing the commission toward the 30-year plan, proposing the creation of an 11-person committee to oversee tax revenues.

While some were receptive to that idea, others were not. Higginbotham and Crist were not happy that such changes were suggested at the last minute and opposed the amendment, as did White.

Another of the tax's opponents, Murman, seemed receptive to that idea.

"I do think that this transportation advisory board strengthens that oversight very much," Murman said. "I think it gives a lot more credibility and transparency."

However, it was not enough to convince her.

The sales tax hike was just one piece of the transportation funding puzzle — albeit the most important piece. The commission on Tuesday night unanimously voted to approve mobility fees, which starting Jan. 1 will require developers to pay more to cover the cost of the transportation improvements needed to support the growth caused by their projects.

Mobility fees could raise anywhere from $5 million to $35 million depending on many factors — but that's nowhere near the $117.5 million a year the half-cent would have raised for decades.

Earlier in the evening, the business community and transportation groups like the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority spoke out in support of the 30-year plan.

"This is a critical moment in our history," TBARTA Executive Director Ray Chiaramonte said. "Is it a perfect plan? No. But it's what the community said they want and are willing to accept."

About 65 people addressed the commission. They seemed split evenly for and against the tax. Each side was applauded at the end of their statements. Their opinions ranged from decrying light rail to urging commissioners not settle for anything less than a 30-year tax.

But many speakers, especially those from unincorporated areas such as Lutz and Riverview, expressed outrage and frustration that the commission was considering another sales tax after voters rejected a full-cent tax in 2010.

"Commissioners, please, we've been lied to," said Tim Curtis, 59, of Plant City. "We want to solve the problem, we really, really do ... but what you're offering us right now is just another way to take more money from us. That doesn't solve the problem."

Some blamed the commission itself for allowing Hillsborough's transportation problems — and lack of solutions — to reach this point.

"The situation we're in now is a consequence of you all not doing your jobs," said Mark Turner, 61, of New Tampa. "This plan that's been put forward, in my view, lacks both substance and foresight."

Matthew Durshimer was all for the 30-year sales tax. He said it was the only way Hillsborough would attract corporate relocations and a younger workforce. Only the 30-year tax, he argued, would allow the county to build a real transit system.

"And if the answer is no, then expect all the problems of today to get worse tomorrow," Durshimer said, "and expect all the young professionals like myself to leave this community."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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