TAMPA — Three years after Hillsborough County voters soundly rejected a one-penny sales tax increase to fund transportation projects, some government leaders are talking about holding a similar referendum next spring.
Though details are still sketchy, proponents say the referendum could be held in March to coincide with the Tampa mayoral election. They don’t want to hold the referendum this November because a similar transportation tax is on the ballot in Pinellas County that month and officials here want to see how that vote goes.
Many Hillsborough officials say some type of new or increased tax will be needed to fund a long list of projects now being developed by county and city planners and engineers. The list ultimately will include roads, bike paths, increased bus service and some type of rail system, Hillsborough officials say.
The projects are an outgrowth of a county transportation policy group that’s been meeting for about six months and includes Hillsborough commissioners and the mayors of the county’s three cities. The group’s focus has been on building a modern transportation system that officials hope will spur economic growth.
“We’re going to have some finality to all these conversations this year,” said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who supported the 2010 referendum. “What would likely then occur is we will be talking about funding options and then you will likely see (a referendum) in 2015.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he supports holding the referendum in March. By that time the county and city transportation planners will have identified the projects, including a potential rail route, giving the policy group time to vote on the list as well as a funding source, he said.
“We know where the potholes are, we know where the roads need to be expanded, so that part is there,” Buckhorn said. “It’s a matter of accumulating all that data, figuring out the rail side of it, and what the technology is.”
The county commission could act this year to set a referendum for March 2015, said County Attorney Chip Fletcher. The state statute dealing with such local tax elections leaves the timing up to county commissioners, Fletcher said. The referendum would require an ordinance approved by a simple majority of the seven-member commission.
That majority might be hard to come by, however. Five commissioners reached by The Tampa Tribune on Wednesday said March might be too soon to ask voters to raise their own taxes. Republicans Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist, who say they have heard rumblings about a referendum next year, cite the continuing weakness in the economy as a reason to wait.
“I’ve got five good friends who are out of a job right now, and two of them have been out of work for over a year and they’re willing to take jobs at half what they were being paid before,” Crist said.
Other commissioners said a March referendum would not give the policy group time to digest the large package of transportation projects still being developed and then sell the improvements - and a tax increase - to county residents.
“We just want to make sure we have all the information back: the citizen feedback, the funding sources, the economic development areas,” Republican Sandy Murman said. “I just think there’s a whole lot that needs to be coordinated and put together before we even talk about a referendum.”
Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat, recalled that the 2010 referendum passed inside the Tampa city limits but was overwhelmingly defeated in the more populous unincorporated areas of the county. Miller said he thinks the reason the referendum lacked support in the suburbs was because those residents did not feel they would benefit from the proposed transportation projects, including a costly light-rail system from downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida.
“We did not filter out all the details and all the facts about how the people of unincorporated Hillsborough County would benefit from the tax,” said Miller. “That was a major factor in the defeat.”
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which vigorously supported passage of the 2010 referendum, has not taken a position on holding another tax vote, whether it’s next year or in November 2016, said chamber chief executive officer Bob Rohrlack.
“Just because some people are talking about it doesn’t mean we’re going to jump on the bandwagon and go,” Rohrlack said.
However, the chamber, which represents businesses of all sizes, plans to become more involved in the ongoing transportation discussions, Rohrlack said. The chamber is holding a transportation conference Friday morning at the Frederick B. Karl County Center. Speakers will include Sharpe, Buckhorn and Joe Lopano, chief executive officer of Tampa International.
Rohrlack said the chamber has also hired two new staff members who will work exclusively on transportation issues.
“Transportation is a vital element to the free enterprise system being successful in this community,” Rohrlack said. “This is a big, bold step and we need to be more involved in this.”