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  1. Transportation

Uncertainty over lawsuit puts Hillsborough's transportation plans on ice

County leaders are reluctant to go ahead with transportation projects until a lawsuit disputing the recent sales tax vote is resolved.
Hillsborough County officials want to buy more electric buses like this one seen at Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street in Tampa last year. But uncertainty over a lawsuit challenging the county’s new transportation sales tax is causing them to delay any new purchases.
Published Jan. 11

TAMPA — A voter-approved plan to remake Hillsborough County's transportation systems with millions in new sales tax revenue has been mired in uncertainty and effectively halted by a lawsuit challenging the tax.

While the court weighs the case, local government leaders have shown a reticence to spend revenue that the state started collecting on Jan. 1. No injunctions have been ordered, but the fear that a judge could overturn the tax has provided enough doubt to stymie some plans.

The lawsuit, filed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, asks a judge to determine whether the charter amendment voters approved in November violates state law. With a resolution possibly months away, officials are taking a pause.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Commissioner Stacy White asks for a quick ruling in Hillsborough transportation lawsuit

Hillsborough's transit agency, for example, had the opportunity to jump a two-year wait and buy eight electric buses that would arrive in December. But the agency says it won't have the $10 million needed to buy the buses until an expected $130 million comes in this year from the tax. So transit board member and County Commissioner Pat Kemp asked her fellow commissioners Wednesday to approve the county stepping up to pay for the buses if necessary.

Fellow commissioners praised the idea of putting more buses, especially an environmentally friendly option, on the street. "Obviously, no one's against electric buses," commissioner Sandy Murman said. But uneasiness over the lawsuit gave the board pause, even for an idea that seemed to have broad support.

"All that sounds great," commissioner Ken Hagan said of the buses. "Do we have any financial risk with this item?"

The uncertainty is expected to linger for at least a couple more months. A summary judgment hearing is scheduled for May, though the case could be resolved by then. If not, a judge likely won't issue a ruling until June.

White repeatedly has said the lawsuit is not a political move and added Thursday that he had no intent to halt decision-making. He said his goal is to ensure the county charter is legally in line Florida law.

While resolving that question is taking longer than he had hoped, White said the time invested is worth it to settle concerns. Considering the large scope of transportation issues that Hillsborough leaders have struggled with for decades, half a year "is not going to be a big difference-maker," he said.

"If it takes six months to determine whether or not this charter amendment meets the letter of the law, to me, that's well worth it and time well-spent," White said.

But that wait is tying up projects that otherwise would move forward. Jeff Seward, interim CEO of the county's bus agency, said the lawsuit caused him to withdraw a recommendation to buy 30 buses that would improve service for about 1.5 million riders.

The buses would have allowed the agency to increase frequency on six routes around the county, allowing buses to run every 15 minutes instead of on the half hour.

"I was ready to pull the trigger on those 30 buses and was actually pretty excited about it because we've never ordered that many buses at one time ever," Seward said. "(The lawsuit) has absolutely slowed our ability to do anything service-wise to a complete standstill."

GETTING AROUND: Keep up with news about local roads, mass transportation and other issues. Visit the Times Transportation page.

While he does not think the lawsuit will overturn the tax, it could alter when agencies receive the money. And Seward said he doesn't want to order the new buses without the money in hand.

"It could be six months, it could be however long," he said. "I'm just not willing to take that risk."

Stetson University College of Law professor Charles Rose called it an uncommon set of circumstances, when a commissioner is suing about the constitutionality of a county charter.

White's lawsuit shouldn't stop the collection of the tax, Rose said, but each entity that would receive a portion of the money has to assess whether it can safely budget for the revenue.

Rose said if he was legal counsel for the county or another agency, he would advise leaders to make their decisions assuming the money won't come through. Spending it at the end of the year is more fiscally responsible than having to return it, he said.

The "very fiscally conservative" approach would be different if the case involved private individuals who don't have a responsibility to anyone other than themselves, Rose said. Those individuals would be bound only by an injunction or a legal requirement.

But it's different for a government agency that answers to taxpayers.

"It really is about uncertainty," said Christina Barker, spokeswoman for All For Transportation, the group that put the sales tax on the ballot. "I really do believe if this (lawsuit) wasn't there, they would have moved forward with things. They have shown they are ready to get stuff done."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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