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  1. Transportation

While struggling to pay for roads and buses, Hillsborough commissioners funneled millions to their own projects

Published May 29, 2016

TAMPA — Even as Hillsborough County struggles to find a way to pay for much-needed road repairs and new transit, commissioners are steering millions of dollars to pet projects and other priorities in their districts.

Since 2013, commissioners have put aside at least $115 million to build new parks and recreation centers, launch incentives for historic preservation and the film industry and provide assistance to local museums and charities.

The sum represents spending initiated by commissioners and approved by majority vote and projects included in the budget at the request of a commissioner.

A list of the expenditures provided to the Tampa Bay Times by county staff includes 110 projects and programs ranging from $16 million for the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program to $2,000 for Rebuilding Tampa Together. Budget director Tom Fesler said the list may not capture all commissioner-initiated spending though "it should be reasonably complete."

The items include:

• $15 million for the Hillsborough County Sports Complex in Brandon (Commissioner Ken Hagan).

• $6 million for a park at a location to be determined along the Alafia River (Commissioner Stacy White).

• $4.4 million for Historic Preservation Challenge grants (Commissioner Victor Crist).

• $3.4 million to replace the Riverview library (Commissioner Sandy Murman).

• $2 million for the Capital Asset Preservation Program (Commissioner Kevin Beckner).

• $1.4 million for Lucy Del Park (Commissioner Les Miller).

• $650,000 for Plant City park lighting (Commissioner Al Higginbotham).

Commissioners defended the spending as needs identified by their residents.

By diverting all that money to transportation, "we would've been neglecting our constituents and certain things they want to have," Miller said. "It's six of one and half a dozen of the other."

Others said it was about finding balance.

"Until you're actually here and understand the enormous responsibility of the funding of different agencies and different things the county is responsible for, you don't understand the challenges we face balancing the budget," Beckner said.

"Transportation's an enormous need," he said. "We've got to find a stable, reliable funding source to tackle that issue."

Both Beckner and Miller have supported raising the sales tax by a half cent to generate $117.5 million a year for transportation projects. Commissioners will hold a public hearing and vote on whether to raise the sales tax on June 9. If approved, it will go to voters in a November referendum.

Crist, who voted against a sales tax surcharge in April, also said it was wrong to solely scrutinize commissioner spending. Crist has advocated cutting the budget by 3 percent across the board.

"Commissioners are out in the field," he said. "We see things, we know what our constituents are complaining about the most or what would make the greatest difference."

Even if it wouldn't have been nearly enough to solve the county's transportation needs in the coming decades, often estimated at $9 billion, Murman said the money commissioners spent on projects would have helped. And it could convince voters that commissioners are looking to cut their own spending before asking residents to raise taxes on themselves.

"I understand a lot of these projects are sacred ground for several commissioners. I get that," Murman said. "We all like to bring home money for our district. But when you have a major problem and you need to solve it you really do need to put your own interests aside for the greater good."

As tax collections plummeted during the depths of the recession, the county cut transportation spending by about $25 million a year to plug other holes. Spending on commissioner initiatives dropped, too. In 2010 and 2011, they spent just $6.2 million on their own projects and programs.

But as county revenues rebounded, transportation spending remained relatively flat. Meanwhile, commissioner spending jumped from $9 million in 2012 to $38.5 million in 2013.

Last month, commissioners voted to direct half of all new growth in revenue over the next three years and one-third after that toward transportation. That could significantly curb the amount of money commissioners can spend on their own priorities.

Parks are a perennial favorite of commissioners when it comes time to dish out new revenue. Murman, who has pushed for several parks in her district, said there should be a moratorium on any new parks until the county finishes its master park plan later this year.

"There are a lot of parks on the list," Murman acknowledged. "We should've held off doing any new parks for a while until we got that plan back."

But Hagan defended the most expensive park on the list: the Brandon sports complex. He said the park, a public-private partnership with Tampa Electric Co., will draw national youth tournaments and should eventually generate revenue for the county.

"There is some merit to that logic" of cutting back on commissioner priorities, Hagan said. "But you need to balance transportation needs with all of our needs and services."

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