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New legislation signed by Gov. Scott could help Hillsborough County with a transit tax in 2016

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Members involved with two important local agencies got huge news this week.

Among the more than three dozen bills that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Thursday included a child welfare bill that removes both the Hillsborough County Children’s Board and the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board from having to go before local voters next year in a referendum to essentially fight for their continued existence.

Both agencies are currently funded by property taxes, but those taxes aren’t subject to the whims of the voters. They were scheduled to do so in 2016, before the new legislation passed.

However, accountability measures remain in place with the respective Board of County Commissioners and legislative delegation to call for a referendum at anytime.

Representatives from both organizations say they’re not doing any metaphorical spiking the ball in the end zone to celebrate — well, not publicly anyway.

“While the news of the Governor’s bill signing is an indicator of the value of Children’s Services Councils statewide, it doesn’t change our focus,” Dr. Marcie A. Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, wrote to Florida Politics in an email Friday afternoon.

“We will continue the work that Pinellas County citizens have entrusted us to do,” she said.  “We will continue to invest in quality services and advocate on behalf of children and families, use research to drive best-practices, and collaborate with multiple partners to strengthen our communities.”

Officials at the Hillsborough County Children’s Board were echoing from the same page.

But this also means that if Hillsborough County Commissioners opt to put a transit tax referendum on the ballot next year, theoretically the odds of it passing may have increased, if only slightly, since there will now only be one such tax going before the public.

“It was certainly an issue that concerns the board to have multiple referendums,” admitted Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner. He says it would have been extremely trying to raise funds and energy for a campaign to have county voters maintain the property tax for the Children’s Board.

“Anytime that you have two competing interests and both of them are good for the community, one being for transit and the other for the services that are being provided by the children’s board, you don’t want to have those two things on the ballot at the same time,” said Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, who also serves as chairman for HART, the county’s transit agency. “It makes it harder for all of us to try to advocate for one but not the other, or both, and sometimes people don’t want to pay for more than one thing at a time, so it is a very good thing for us.”

Some county commissioners and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn have sounded a lot less enthusiastic about such a transit measure in recent months. That change in enthusiasm came after the much touted Greenlight Pinellas measure across the Bay got walloped at the polls last November.

The Policy Leadership Group, which consists of the Board of County Commissioners as well as Buckhorn and the mayors of Temple Terrace and Plant City, are expected to make recommendations regarding a transit referendum in the coming months.

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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