After more than two years of preparation, the Hillsborough County Commission will hold a meeting on April 27 to decide whether a half-cent transportation tax referendum will be on this November’s ballot.
The hearing is planned a night after the board will hold a separate hearing on implementing a new mobility fee ordinance, very much a part of addressing what County Administrator Mike Merrill says are the more than $9 billion in transportation needs of the county. Both meetings could be held away from the county center in downtown Tampa, though those destinations have yet to be announced.
The fate of whether the Go Hillsborough transportation tax will go to the voters is still a mystery, just seven months before the November general election. Six of the seven members of the Board of County Commissioners have already tipped their hand on the vote, and it’s deadlocked at 3-3, with District 2 Commissioner Victor Crist considered the swing vote.
Crist referenced an issue that has become dominant among some of the Go Hillsborough critics outside of Tampa: that the plan is designed to create a light-rail system inside the city.
Referring to his constituents (who live in Carrollwood, Citrus Park, Keystone, Lutz, New Tampa, Seffner, Temple Terrace, Thonotosassa and Westchase) as having no interest in light rail, Crist said that instead they’re much more focused on patching potholes, reducing pedestrian and bicyclists fatalities and easing traffic congestion.
“Is there any rail proposed in the outer county areas?” he asked Merrill, who said there wasn’t.
“So my dollars up in north county that I pay into this, is not going to pay for something I don’t want?” he repeated. Merrill told him that was correct.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, a strong proponent of Go Hillsborough, then asked Merrill directly, “Is the County proposing a light-rail system in Go Hillsborough?”
“No, we are not,” Merrill replied.
Alluding to blog posts and other sources that refer the plan as being the “Go Hillsborough light-rail plan,” Hagan charged that there was “so much misinformation promulgated by a select few critics.”
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, an already declared “no” on the project, also said the project wasn’t going to flimflam voters, saying that that the way the funds would be distributed from then half-cent tax was a “pure an example of home rule, where local citizens are deciding on how they spend the money.”
The distribution of the half-cent tax would go 55 percent to unincorporated Hillsborough County, 25 percent to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) agency, 17 percent to the city of Tampa, 2 percent to Plant City, and 1 percent to Temple Terrace.
The half-cent tax over 10 years would amount $649 million to the county, $294 million to HART, $197 million for Tampa, $20 million for Plant City, and $14 million for Temple Terrace.
Merrill told the Board there are three “plan outcomes” for Go Hillsborough: 1) to improve the quality of life for citizens in the county, 2) to expand mobility choices, and 3) to increase the county’s competitiveness for job creation and job retention.
He said that commissioners – as well as the local governments from Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and HART – will all need to approve what he called the “transportation plan project – which would include the projects included in the Go Hillsborough proposal located in their respective communities.
Accountability was emphasized as the plan continues to be refined over the next two years. Hagan said he felt strongly there should be a citizens committee to review spending on the plan, and Merrill said that it was likely that the county would utilize a panel of three retired judges to review the Go Hillsborough Plan’s accountability on an annual basis.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Go Hillsborough critic Kent Roberts blasted Merrill’s scheduled appearance, claiming that he was violating county and state law by “electioneering” for the tax.
County Commissioner Chairman Les Miller strongly disagreed., saying, “Mr. Merrill takes his direction from us. And to sit here as I heard today it was said that Mr Merrill violated a state state, is an attempt at character assassination, it’s asinine, and it’s unwarranted. Mr. Merrill works for the county commission.”
The board is poised to finally act on a mobility fee increase on new development that will also enhance their transportation funding. Merrill said that funds from mobility fees could only be used in unincorporated areas of Hillsborough County. The sales tax revenues could pay for any transportation projects, with the exception of trails.
The Go Hillsborough plan has been under a cloud of suspicion since last fall when the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department conducted an investigation into whether PR consultant Beth Leytham had persuaded the county to hire transportation engineering company Parsons Brinckerhoff to lead the Go Hillsborough effort.
The investigation found no wrongdoing.
Transportation critic Sharon Calvert thanked Merrill for the study, but said now that it was completed that, “common sense indicates how easy it is to understand that any sales tax hike proposed through the flawed process most likely will never pass.”
Whether county residents get the opportunity to prove her wrong won’t be known for three more weeks.