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Hillsborough County PLG officials offer a wary perspective on proposed transit tax

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In the eight days since Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and the members of the private transportation consulting group Parsons Brinckerhoff unveiled a proposed half-cent sales transportation tax that could be on the 2016 ballot, it has been met with decidedly mixed opinion. That’s because the measure as proposed would go largely toward road and bridge maintenance, new roads and intersection improvements. Just 36 percent is proposed for transit.

Nowhere has that disappointment been more clearly articulated than Friday on the front page of the Ybor City weekly La Gaceta, where publisher/editor Patrick Mantegia wrote that while his paper’s editorial page has never failed to support additional taxes for infrastructure in the past, this proposal “is so flawed we just won’t stomach it.”

Interestingly enough, even some members of the Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group that met at a Tiger Bay meeting in Tampa on Friday were definitely not willing to give a full-throated endorsement of the plan.

“I don’t think any of us are saying….Hey, Hillsborough County, go for it. Go vote for it today,” said Plant City Mayor Rick Lott. “I think we moved it to the next step.”

“This document is not etched in stone,” added Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura. “From what it says right now, to what it’s going to say right before the referendum, I’m sure it’s going to be tweaked.”

Mayor Lott also said he was disappointed that the call is for only a half-cent sales tax, not a full cent.

The Policy Leadership group consists of the Hillsborough County Commission, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and the chair (Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez) and CEO of HART, Katharine Eagan, who also participated in Friday’s event.

Hillsborough County spent nearly a million dollars to work with transportation consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff to run a public information campaign called Go Hillsborough to solicit input from country residents earlier this year. But Chillura said he was disappointed by the total number of citizens who came out to the meetings.

“People are going to whine, and they’re going to bitch and complain, but they’re not getting out there and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I want and this is what I want.’ They’re not getting out there, because we need to know what the people want.”

Chillura said he attended a few of the 36 total public meetings hosted by Go Hillsborough, and mostly saw a lot of county staff members present. “In order for it to be successful there has to be buy-in from the community, and it has to be the community’s plan,” he stressed.

The proposal for a half-cent sales tax over 30 years time, resulting in $3.525 billion in revenues, which breaks down to $117.5 million annually: 23.8 percent of that would go to road maintenance, 36 percent for new roads, 36 percent for transit, and 3.9 percent for sidewalks/bike safety.

The plan would also call for those revenues to be distributed to the five separate governments or agencies: 55.23 percent would go to Hillsborough County, 25 percent to HART, 16.82 percent to Tampa, 1.72 percent to Plant City and 1.2 percent to Temple Terrace.

Nobody believes getting a sales tax passed will be an easy lift in Republican-controlled Hillsborough County. But all three elected officials defended the need for a tax, saying more funding is needed just to keep up with the growth of the county over the past few decades.

“We can’t keep on living off of property taxes,” said Suarez, who represents Tampa, a city that passed the often derided 2010 transit tax. “We can’t keep living off of the past, because we’re never going to be able to grow with the population growth that we already have and are expecting in the next 20 years.”

“We need to go to people — big employers, hospitals, go to big manufacturers and get the input from these folks, because at the end of the day that’s what’s going to matter. What we don’t want is a month before this referendum comes out, people come out of the woodwork to say, ‘what about this, what about that?'” said Chillura.

Mayor Lott of Plant City admitted that the funds his community would get from the plan wouldn’t fund any new projects at all, but simply pay for a backlog of road projects that have stayed in place for years because of a lack of funding. “We’re looking at taking a majority of those funds and taking care of the current assets that we have, and bring them back to a level where they should be at.”

Eagan said her preference for HART if the measure were to pass next year would be to help fund a park-n-ride location, a place that would motivate citizens to drop their car off to take public transportation to their job everyday. “Imagine, a real park and ride. My dream universe has a Starbucks, a dry cleaner, a bodega, and a place to drop off the kids for daycare.”

The 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward initiative was heavily weighed in favor of rail, with 75 percent going to that form of transportation and just 25 percent for roads. The new breakdown goes in the opposite direction, seemingly making it more palatable for residents outside of Tampa to literally buy in.

However, that has concerned some people in Tampa who believe that even though the plan would allow individual municipalities like Tampa to use their proportion of the funding in whatever fashion they like, there won’t be enough funding to do those plans (such as using the streetcar to move from downtown to Tampa International Airport) a concern echoed by Suarez today.

“The problem I have is: How is it going to be divvied up? What strings are going to be attached for both the city and HART?” he asked. “Just seeing parts of it, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do a lot of things that we want to do.”

The Policy Leadership group will convene next month to vote to approve the proposal. Parsons Brinckerhoff will then conduct further public meetings later this summer with specific projects listed to get more input. The Board of County Commissioners would later this year vote on ballot language for a 2016 referendum.

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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