The nearly three year long campaign to put a half-cent transportation tax on this November’s ballot in Hillsborough County died Wednesday night.
After hearing from more than 60 people over four hours, the Board of County Commissioners rejected the Go Hillsborough plan on a 4-3 vote.
Saying that he was going with his “gut feeling,” Commissioner Victor Crist announced that he would oppose the measure, killing the hopes and dreams of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and many people in Tampa who believe the region’s transportation problems required the funding that the 30-year plan would bring into the county and city’s coffers.
The 30-year tax would have brought in $117.5 million dollars to the county, the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace and HART, the region’s bus system. But the 400 road, bridge and mass transit projects that would be financed by the tax increase if approved by the voters were only set for the first 10 years, a problem mentioned by numerous speakers.
According to the account of Crist, the 62 members of the public who spoke were dead split in their allegiance to the plan, with 31 supporting and 31 in opposition.
The tensions between the dueling camps erupted early on, when Tea Party activist Tim Curtis shouted at Buckhorn after he told commissioners and the public that it would be a lie if anybody during the course of the evening said the plan was about Hillsborough County paying for a rail plan. Curtis was admonished by County Chairman Les Miller.
“He called me a liar!” Curtis responded.
When Buckhorn resumed, he told the seven board members that they’d better not support a hybrid proposal for only five or ten years duration, and not the full 30 years. “I can’t issue debt on anything less than 30 years,” he said. “I can’t go to the federal government without a revenue stream that is consistent, that is long term.”
Rumors had circulated in recent weeks that Commissioner Kevin Beckner would offer a shorter proposal of perhaps just 10 years, in order to get more buy-in. And in fact after the three hours of public discussion had ended, Beckner proposed an amendment to support a 20-year tax plan. It didn’t receive a second.
Earlier he did have an amended approved that would increase the transparency and accountability measures of the proposal, offering up an 11-member board of appointees who would oversee the projects and spending. But while that amendment won support, the overall measure failed.
Beckner, Miller, and Commissioner Ken Hagan supported the measure. Crist, Stacy White, Al Higginbotham and Sandy Murman opposed it.
“When I saw this was going to be thirty years – all or nothing – I cannot support it,” Murman said, alluding to how the public still doesn’t feel the effects from the economic recovery. “We have not had a successful transportation referendum in 14 years in Florida. It better be good. It better be worth it.”
In the end, she said it wasn’t.
During the public discussion, opponents continued to tout the idea that the county government has the funds in their budget to pay for transportation, and simply didn’t want to do so, instead preferring to hit up taxpayers.
“I come to find out that…you’re only spending 3 percent of your budget on transportation,” Len Mead said, a figure he said was only a third of what other counties in the state spend on transportation. “Please don’t put this tax hike anywhere. Just reallocate the growing taxes you’ve already got and spend maybe more five to ten percent more on transportation.”
Connect Tampa Bay’s Kevin Thurman said that wasn’t remotely accurate, a point that County Administrator Mike Merrill had also rebutted in recent weeks, saying that taking more money out of the budget would put a strain on other essential services that the county provides.
Tampa attorney David Mechanik was effusive in praising the planners of Go Hillsborough for going throughout the community to hear what the citizenry wants, calling it “extraordinary.”
“You will hear people say there’s too much transit in this plan, you will hear people say there’s not enough transit. This is a very well balanced plan,” he said.
Ray Chiaramonte, TBARTA’s economic director, called the vote a “crucial moment” in the community’s history, similar to when the decision was made to build Tampa International Airport and USF. He said that after reviewing 14 different focus groups after the 2010 Moving Hillsborough transit tax was defeated, he said the people said afterwards that they didn’t want big projects, but for the county to go move incrementally, which is what he said Go Hillsborough does.
“You have to let the community weigh in on this,” he insisted.
And then there were those with ambivalent feelings. Tampa resident Chris Kenney said he supported the objectives of the plan “100 percent,” but said he was vehemently opposed to using a sales tax to do it, saying it disproportionately effects people of modest means.
While Go Hillsborough supporters said in a democracy the people should get the opportunity vote on whether they wanted a tax, opponents said that America wasn’t a democracy, but a republic. “We do not put every difficult question out to the public so that you can con them,” said Valrico resident Kathy Brown. “Three years ago you hired Go Hillsborough without putting out bids and spent $1.3 million of our tax money and wasted three years of our time!” she complained, a reference to the money that went to transportation engineering company Parsons Brinckerhoff, who put together the Go Hillsborough plan.
The contracting out of that plan ultimately led to a lengthy investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department, though they ultimately didn’t find any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, the investigation took up valuable time that Go Hillsborough supporters lost in making their case.