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Sierra Club says BOCC needs to change things now before it will support transportation tax

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Pat Kemp, the program chair of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, says it’s not so much that the organization is completely against the proposed half-cent sales transportation tax that could come before Hillsborough County voters next year (as SPB first reported on Wednesday night).

It’s just that the group wants to see the county commit to other issues dealing with development and transportation that don’t require taxpayer approval before coming out and fully backing the measure.

That includes raising development fees, changing a development policy that has allowed for unpaid growth, and increasing the five-cent gas tax, as has been done in neighboring Pasco and Manatee counties.

Kemp says that while county officials have talked about raising impact/mobility fees, they now won’t be doing that until after November 2016, which isn’t good enough. “We’ve been talking about this for 10 years now,” she says, adding that the County Commission could vote on those issues in the next two months.

Regarding a gas tax, officials with Go Hillsborough, the publicly financed group designed to get public input on transportation issues in the county, conducted a public opinion survey of 600 likely voters this spring. The survey showed that the only potential transit tax that could pass next year would be a half-cent sales tax.

When asked if they would support an increase in the five-cent gas tax, 80 percent opposed, while just 18 percent showed support.

Sierra Club chair Kent Bailey questions that statistic, however, and said that the Sierra Club would like to see how the question was asked. He said he’s been denied access to that data from Hillsborough County officials. “The taxpayers paid for that poll,” he says. “Taxpayers should have access to that poll. We should know that question was asked.”

Beth Leytham, who is helping run the Go Hillsborough plan, says that she has not received a public information request from the Sierra Club regarding the polling data, but says that she would “love to sit down” with Bailey and go over it. She says the pollster will be in Tampa next week and could meet with him at that time. She also emphasized that “it was not a push poll,” referring to how some surveys can arrive at answers based on how the questions are posed.

It’s national policy for the Sierra Club to support increasing gas taxes, Bailey says, “Because it taxes the people who use the roads directly and it’s a user fee, and the Sierra Club very much believes in a user fee to fund roads.”

Meanwhile, the Club’s criticism of the proposed transit plan isn’t shared by other transit advocates.

Kevin Thurman with the group Connect Tampa Bay said he doesn’t understand why the Sierra Club executive board believes “members of the Sierra Club think it’s important to pay for roads before we invest in our buses,” referring to the fact that the gas tax goes to roads, and not transit.

Thurman also said he thought it was “weird” that the environmental group was “prejudging” a plan that is not yet completed. Officials with the county and Go Hillsborough have stressed that there is still more time for the public to get involved in helping shape the plan in upcoming meetings.

“It’s sad to me that instead of encouraging people to participate in the round of meetings and ask for more transit and making a judgment after the city and county are done putting together a plan, that they’re making prejudgments before the public has an opportunity to do so, including their own members,” Thurman says.

Bailey and Kemp have met recently with Sharon Calvert and Ken Roberts with the Tea Party, and Bailey says that on some issues on transit the two groups have more in common than one might suspect. But Bailey says it’s silly to believe that the Club has shut out comment from it’s membership, saying they meet monthly to discuss such issues. And he says that their policy on development comes straight from the principles that are used across the country. “This is who the Sierra Club is,” he states.

“If developers aren’t paying their fair share, we’re just falling further behind,” says Kemp. “We’re urging the County Commission to take these steps first. To do it now.”

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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