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Activists rallying to stop Hillsborough Commissioners from putting Go Hillsborough on the ballot

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Hillsborough County Commission will vote next week on whether they want to support putting a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot to pay for transportation improvements.

Critics of the proposal are already rallying opponents to speak up at that public hearing to speak against the measure.

“Several of your county commissioners want to be re-elected or seek other office (sic), some of them this year. Nothing has a bigger impact on them than ordinary citizens (not paid agitators) showing up at their meetings,” rail critic Sharon Calvert writes in an email.

Calvert sent out the email in her role as spokesperson for the group No Tax for Tracks, the same band of activists that led the opposition to the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas transit tax referendum that lost badly.

“Sharon Calvert talks about paid agitators, which I think is quite funny, because I don’t know anybody who has been paid to be an agitator,” says Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. “She’s just starting off this whole thing making totally unfounded accusations, just like she did about the sheriff’s office, where she had no facts.”

That was a reference to the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department’s investigation the Go Hillsborough effort. The Tampa Tribune reported that when investigators asked her for any facts to support claims about malfeasance regarding the contracting out of Go Hillsborough, investigators wrote that neither Calvert nor Sam Rashid “had none to provide.”

Unlike the 2014 effort in Pinellas or the Moving Hillsborough Forward effort in 2010, Calvert has some liberal allies in opposing the transportation tax this time around – if it even makes it to the ballot, such as the Sierra Club.

“What we’re waiting to see is exactly how the funding is going to be split up,” Kent Bailey, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club chapter, said last week. “We’re having conversations at every meeting of our executive committee…We’re thinking very hard about what we’ll accept.”

The Sierra Club has been calling since last summer for the county to raise mobility fees and the gas tax before resorting to a sales tax increase, but during a discussion regarding mobility fees last week, County Commissioner Sandy Murman said now was not the time for raising the gas tax.

Bailey says the County government is blowing it by not pursuing a raise in the gas tax, saying gas prices are never going to be less than they are now. And he disputes the contention by County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Attorney Chip Fletcher that the gas tax can’t be used for transportation projects, citing a 1997 legal opinion that then Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued to Hillsborough County officials.

Another progressive group, the Hillsborough County Young Democrats, held a news conference in January where they said they would oppose the half-cent tax unless there was a greater emphasis put on transit in the plan.

The details in the Go Hillsborough proposal have not changed since the plan was presented to the public last fall. It calls for 55 percent of the $117 million that would be raised in its first 10 years to go towards roads, with the other 45 percent going to transit projects.

The distribution of the half-cent tax would go 55 percent to unincorporated Hillsborough County, 25 percent to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) agency, 17 percent to the city of Tampa, 2 percent to Plant City, and 1 percent to Temple Terrace.

Supporters for Go Hillsborough have been buoyed by a poll released last week by the Tampa office of Mercury Florida, a political consulting firm. The poll showed that 65 percent of Hillsborough County residents would support a half-cent sales tax for transportation, by far the best survey for Go Hillsborough during the current cycle.

A survey released by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce a week earlier showed that 49 percent of Hillsborough residents were in favor of the tax versus 46 percent against when the question was asked without much context. That poll also showed that when asked, 54 percent said the proposal as currently written did not go far enough in answering the county’s transportation issue.

The Hillsborough County Commissioners vote on the tax will come after a public hearing is heard next Wednesday, April 27 at 6:00 p.m. It will take place at the All People’s Life Center, at 6105 E. Sligh Avenue in Tampa. Presumably the measure’s supporters who have been laying low to date, will also bring out significant numbers to advocate the board put the measure on the ballot.

(An earlier version of this story listed the breakdown between funding for roads to transit at 60 percent to 40 percent).

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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