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Hillsborough County Commissioners to vote on Go Hillsborough plan in February

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

It’s not as early as was originally envisioned, but the Board of Hillsborough County Commissioners are poised to vote in February on whether to put a half-cent sales tax for transportation before voters in November 2016.

“In the beginning of January we’ll talk about the projects in programs in detail, and then the last couple of meetings we’ll talk about funding options, and at the beginning of February, we’ll take action on a plan,” County Administrator Mike Merrill told SPB on Monday afternoon (Merrill first revealed the timetable in Monday’s Tampa Tribune).

Feb. 17 is looking like the date where the BOCC opts on deciding on whether or not  putting the tax on the table for voters next fall – or should we say, it’s when Victor Crist decides.

The other six commissioners have made their opinions known about the issue, explicitly in the case of some at the last Policy Leadership Group meeting last month. Sandy Murman, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White are no votes; Kevin Beckner, Les Miller and Ken Hagen are supportive. Crist is the wild card.

Murman had been supportive, but changed her tune last month and announced that just before that last meeting of the Policy Leadership Group that she favored her own plan that would not raise any sales taxes, but instead use a combination of mobility fees, a raise in the gas tax, dipping into general reserves and taking from a transportation tax increment trust fund. It’s plan that is backed by members of both the Sierra Club and Tea Party.

Her colleagues on the PLG summarily dismissed the idea last month, but it will come back before the BOCC in early 2016 as part of the discussions on how to fund the county’s transportation needs, Merrill says. “Other than reserves, the rest of it is already in play,” he said of her proposal, referring to the fact that the country will have a discussion and vote on raising mobility fees.

In June, the Policy Leadership Group received the package of projects that the half-cent sales tax (which would raise $117 million a year) would pay for that included a heavy dose of constructing and rebuilding roads, as well as some transit projects. It was voted on in November, and Merrill says the actual project in the plan hasn’t changed much. “We’re just packaging it, taking it piece by piece in detail, to show the overall picture about why are we doing this,” he says.

Although February is later than when Hillsborough officials were hoping they could vote to put the issue on the ballot, it’s still three months sooner than in 2010, the last time the county presented a transportation tax before the voters.

Still lurking in the shadows, of course, is the investigative report being performed by Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee examining the negotiations that led to the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff being hired to work on the Go Hillsborough project in 2012.  The firm subsequently hired public relations consultant Beth Leytham to work on the public outreach part of that effort. The sheriff is investigating if any state ethics laws were violated.

Merrill told the Tribune that the investigation will be concluded by Christmas, which is just 10 days away. He told SPB on Monday that the sheriffs department will “issue their report by the end of December.”

Debbie Carter with the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office said she had no information to provide on when the report will be issued.

During the debate on the issue in 2010, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio called it, “the most public policy issue of this century.” But the voters in Hillsborough County overwhelmingly rejected the 1-cent transportation tax that year. Pinellas County Commissioners rejected the Greenlight Pinellas initiative in 2014.

The question at the moment isn’t whether the Go Hillsborough tax will be approved or rejected in 2016, but whether voters will have the opportunity to vote on it.

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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