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Hillsborough County Dems delay vote on Go Hillsborough

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

With Hillsborough County Commissioners poised to decide next week on whether to put the Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot, members of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee gathered Monday night to weigh in on the issue.

Except they didn’t.

After hearing ten-minute presentations in both support and against the proposal, and with time running out on the 90-minute meeting, party officials opted to table the issue for another month.

That could leave the group voiceless, as there is the possibility that the tax dies next week if four commissioners opt to kill it.

Former DEC Chair Michael Steinberg moderated the discussion. He told committee members that they could vote one of three ways: to support the proposal, reject it or choose to formally take no position.

Speaking for the measure was Hillsborough County Commissioner Chairman Les Miller, who wasn’t actually at the meeting, held at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County building in Ybor City. Instead, a YouTube video of Miller addressing an audience regarding the issue from a week ago was aired, as DEC chair Ione Townsend said Miller was at attending another town hall meeting, and was unable to attend.

It wasn’t the most dynamic presentation. In addition to poor sound quality before organizers learned how to increase the volume, Miller stood up straight reading details of the Go Hillsborough plan from sheets of paper, looking back up at the audience.

He batted down the argument that the county has sufficient funds today to spend on transportation, saying taking dollars from the general revenue budget would hurt services for the other things that the county funds, such as fire rescue, parks and recreation and children and families. And he boasted that 20 percent of the tax would be paid for by tourists.

The rest of his presentation contained lots of numbers – of decreased congestion, reduced traffic crashes, improved sidewalks and park and rides, and 96 miles of new MetroRapid bus lines.

Speaking against the proposal were two speakers – Bill Carlson, president of the Tampa-based communications firm Tucker/Hall, and former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.

Although the tax is projected to raise $117 million a year over  30 years, County Administrator Mike Merrill has laid out specific plans only for the first decade of the tax.

“My proposal is we wait and do it later,” Carlson said, echoing the criticism among Tampa liberals that there is far too little rail in the plan. “We don’t want to kill it, we want to modify it,” he insisted, adding that the only people who will gain from the proposal is the Tea Party and the consultants who will work on the campaign.

“We should have robust urban transit,” added Turanchik when his five minutes came up. “Go Hillsborough doesn’t do that.”

He claimed that only three percent of Go Hillsborough went to increase new bus routes in urban neighborhoods, and will “relegate HART to a mediocre bus sytem for the next 20 years.” (In Tuesday’s Tampa Tribune, HART CEO Katharine Eagan says that 70 percent of of the $30 million HART would get from the tax would go to bus operations).

Turanchik said he supports a hybrid of alternative proposals offered by Commissioners Sandy Murman and Kevin Beckner, which includes approving a gas tax (though Murman dismissed the idea of doing so now last week).

Democratic State Committeeman Alan Clendenin then proposed that the DEC oppose the measure. That led to a short question and answer period.

With many members still searching to have more questions answered, Townsend then proposed a motion to defer further debate until the party’s May meeting, which was approved by the majority of the group (one of the biggest DEC meetings in recent history, it should be noted).

“This will be meaningless,” Democrat Vic DiMaio said in reaction, referring to the fact that the BOCC votes next week on whether to put the proposal on the ballot.

If the board does support the measure, a full-on campaign will commence for the November vote, and the DEC’s opinion could still have some relevance.

Earlier on Monday, SPB reported that 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. After that was questioned yesterday, SPB reached out to the Young Democrats on Monday night to clarify the matter.

“Over the course of Go Hillsborough, we’ve seen progress to allocate more funding for transit and we will keep pushing our County Commission to have greater leadership regarding Tampa Bay’s transit future,” Sarah Sakeena Marshall, the public relations director with the Hillsborough County Young Democrats wrote to SPB in an e-mail. “As it stands now, the funding for transit is not enough; our resolution called for 65% of the sales tax to be allocated for transit funding and at most, we see only 44.8%.”

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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