There will NOT be a transportation referendum going before voters in Hillsborough County this November.
In a meeting eerily similar to the first public hearing on the Go Hillsborough transportation tax April 27, the Board of County Commissioners rejected a proposal for a twenty-year half-cent sales tax. The measure failed on a 4-3 vote.
Commissioners Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham, Stacy White and Sandy Murman each voted to oppose the measure.
The board did vote 4-3 on a proposal only introduced Wednesday afternoon by Murman, seeking to pay for transportation projects from growth in the county’s sales and property tax revenues.
Her plan calls for the county attorney to create two separate trust funds — one for the unincorporated parts of the country, and one inside the county. A citizens advisory committee made up of a representative chosen by each commissioner would also be selected.
“This gives you almost the same amount of money (as a referendum),” Murman of what she described as a TIF (tax incremental funding). “It does need to be vetted, scrubbed and verified by our staff. We will be making allocations to the cities (Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace) and HART.”
Like the first meeting, public comment was almost evenly divided between the critics and proponents of the referendum. Crist said by his count there were 65 speakers, 33 for the measure and 32 against.
Among the critics were Dover resident George Niemann, who said commissioners created “this mess” with transportation by reducing funds toward maintenance, failure to collect sufficient impact fees from developers and their policy of encouraging sprawl.
“We don’t trust your tax hikes!” snarled Tea Party activist Tim Curtis from Plant City. Curtis said commissioners had perpetrated a “shell game” against the public. “There’s nothing funny about having to make tough decisions about where to allocate scarce resources,” he said.
Jeff Lucas said he recently moved back to Hillsborough County after fifteen years of exile in Atlanta, where he said the traffic was horrific, and could portend the county’s future without passage of the referendum.
Lucas said because a solid percentage of tourists would be paying the sales tax, it would be like “free money for the citizens of Hillsborough County.”
As is usually the case in these discussions, several citizens supporting the measure said they wanted to keep their children around town.
Although the original proposal going into the evening was that the board was poised to vote on was a half-cent sales tax for 15 years, citizens who supported a referendum were unanimous in calling to go at least twenty, with some die-hards calling for the original thirty-year tax that was voted down in April.
Bob Rohrlack, the CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said that it had to be at least 20 years to qualify for matching federal funds. Rohrlack stated that information was confirmed Wednesday when a group of Chamber officials met with U.S. Dept. of Transportation officials, and asked them how it worked.
“We were told clearly, there must be a plan of at least twenty years financial support for a road project to get that federal match,” he said.
Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, said he’d settle for a sales tax as short as five years to show the public that the board can prove that it can be reliable stewards, but emphasized that “doing something is better than doing nothing.”
“If they think it’s worth it I believe they would extend that to a longer period that then could include money for rail, or whatever, premium transit is the state of the art at that time,” he said.
Lutz resident Lou Greene admitted he couldn’t keep track of how long the tax that might go on the ballot actually was.
“I get confused,” Green said. “I came here thinking it was a 15-year tax,” but then saw signs and people advocating for 20 years. Then it was a 10-year plan, and a thirty-year plan. “Then it was a half-cent, then it was a one-cent, and suddenly, I think I’m dealing with the Keystone Kops.”
Like other critics, he said that there was plenty of money in the existing budget to pay for transportation needs.
Even though Crist and Higginbotham voted in support of Murman’s plan, they sounded skeptical at times when discussing it. Crist referred to the fact that the county could not bond a TIF.
“I can’t support a TIF, ” Higginbotham added earlier, saying it left taxpayers at risk.
However, by the end of the four-hour discussion, it was something positive to vote for and something to work on going forward, now that the yearslong work for a referendum on the 2016 ballot was history, for certain this time around.