$158,000 and counting: Legal costs rise in suit against Hillsborough transportation tax

Public agencies are spending thousands on lawyers to defend a lawsuit by County Commissioner Stacy White that challenges the voter-approved measure.
Judge Rex Barbas listens to arguments in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on March 14 regarding a lawsuit filed by County Commissioner Stacy White to overturn a one-cent transportation sales tax approved by voters in November. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Judge Rex Barbas listens to arguments in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on March 14 regarding a lawsuit filed by County Commissioner Stacy White to overturn a one-cent transportation sales tax approved by voters in November. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published March 21

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White's lawsuit has cost taxpayers at least $158,000 so far, a number that will rise as he continues to challenge the voter-approved, one-cent transportation sales tax he says violates state law.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas ruled last week that White could not challenge the tax in his official capacity as a county commissioner. However, the judge gave White's attorney 10 days to amend the lawsuit, with White continuing his argument as a citizen. White said he expects his attorney to make the change later this week.

His lawsuit contends that the measure, approved by 57 percent of the voters in November, is inconsistent with state law and usurps the power of the county commission. It points to a predetermined breakdown of how the tax will be spent and a committee set up to oversee the process.

White also contends the ballot language was misleading.

"I know I'm ready to move forward and have these issues resolved one way or another," he said.

White's case, filed in December, is costing time and money as the agencies and governments involved assign staff and hire outside lawyers.

In the three-and-a-half months since he filed the suit, Hillsborough County has spent nearly $65,000 on outside attorneys and billed another $23,000. Hillsborough's transit agency has billed and paid about $70,000 to-date. That number will increase as attorneys review White's amended lawsuit and prepare for a May 3 hearing that is expected to last all day.

Other defendants, like the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace, are using in-house attorneys and do not have an estimated cost. The city of Tampa does not track how many hours attorneys have spent on the case, spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said.

County Commissioner Les Miller, who also is the chair of Hillsborough's transit authority, said the billable hours are only one cost of the case. He said he has received multiple public records requests, including three last week, from opponents of the tax. Miller forwarded those to the county attorney's office,

"That's another cost of time and taxpayer money," he said. "They're trying to stop a tax, and yet we're having to spend tax dollars in a lawsuit to defend what the public voted for. It's absolutely ridiculous."

But White contends it is the defendants in the case who are driving up the costs. White said he and his attorney, Chris Altenbernd, asked the judge for what they thought would be a quick ruling. But the case, filed around the holidays, took time to be assigned a judge and scheduled for a hearing. Altenbernd then left the country for three weeks in January for an already-scheduled vacation with his wife.

Still, White blamed the defense's decision to schedule depositions and make requests for discovery, all which cost money for attorneys to prepare.

"We just asked for a simple motion for summary judgement that should've been cut and dry," White said. "It's some of the things that the defense is doing that is running these legal bills way up."

All For Transportation, the citizens group that helped pass the sales tax and filed the motion to dismiss the suit, said White is suing the taxpayers with their own money.

“There were 145 days between the day we filed our petition and election day on which any of those days Stacy White could have gotten a free legal opinion from the county attorney,” All for Transportation co-founder Christina Barker said. “It’s shameful that he’s blaming citizens for the cost of his obstruction.”

The group’s campaign last year was partially funded by Jeff Vinik, the Tampa Bay Lightning owner, who also is a developer and philanthropist. In addition, Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

This is not the only legal challenge the tax is facing. A similar case was filed earlier this month by a Temple Terrace resident. White also has appeared in a related bond validation hearing for the sales tax as a citizen, raising similar concerns.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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