TAMPA — A proposed half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects inched closer to the ballot Thursday, though its endorsement by a group of Hillsborough County political leaders was less than ringing.
The county’s Transportation Policy Leadership group voted 10-1 to approve a comprehensive transportation plan that would be financed by the sales tax increase. All seven county commissioners serve on the policy leadership group, along with the county’s three city mayors and the board chairman of the HART transit system.
The tax would produce an estimated $117.5 million annually, or $3.5 billion over 30 years. The majority of the money would go to road maintenance and new roads, with another big chunk to expand HART bus service.
The vote Thursday was a recommendation to the county commission to approve the current transportation plan and start the process of creating an ordinance needed to put the sales tax increase on the November 2016 ballot.
The next step will come Aug. 4 when county commissioners formally ask the county attorney to draw up a draft ordinance. On Nov. 5, the commission will give the ordinance preliminary approval and set a public hearing on the measure. The final vote is set for December.
During the time between the August and December meetings, the county will hold 56 public workshops, two at each of the county’s 26 libraries. The purpose of the workshops will be to get feedback on different road and transit projects that came to the forefront during 36 previous public meetings in the spring.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said this third phase of public outreach will cost $350,000 which will be paid to the county’s consultant, Parsons-Brinckerhoff. The county has already paid the company about $1 million. Merrill has the authority to authorize the $350,000 payment unless commissioners object. No one spoke Thursday against paying the consultant.
Only one member of the group, county Commissioner Stacy White, voted against the recommendation to approve the transportation plan. But several commissioners left themselves wiggle room to vote no when the referendum comes up for a final vote in December.
“I said I would support whatever comes out of this committee,” Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. “But if it gets derailed by Nov. 5, I will not be in favor of the referendum.”
Asked after the meeting to elaborate, Higginbotham said if the main thrust of the plan presented Thursday remains unchanged, he will support putting the tax on the ballot. But he reserved the right to change his mind if, for instance, commissioners decided to raise the half-cent sales tax increase to a full cent.
Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman, while repeating her past statements that “transportation is the No. 1 priority” for the county, said she wanted more details about what projects would be financed by the increased tax revenue.
“If my district does not get a benefit from this plan, I will not support it,” Murman said. “East- and south-county have not gotten their fair share of transportation dollars.”
And despite two years of meetings and dozens of presentations by Merrill and Parsons Brinckerhoff regarding the financial impetus for a tax increase, Murman said she needed more convincing.
“I do need to understand more why we have to raise taxes,” she said.
Commissioner Victor Crist, who was not at the meeting, had a legislative aide read a prepared statement. Crist said he voted yes to move the issue forward for more discussion and consideration.
“But please note that does not reflect how I may vote on the final (county commission) decision in the future,” Crist said in the statement.
Commissioner Ken Hagan had no such compunctions about the rationale for the tax increase. The county has a $9 billion transportation deficit, Hagan said, and no re-jiggering of the county’s present budget would make a dent in that figure.
Two-thirds of the county government budget goes to public safety and constitutional officers such as the supervisor of elections and the clerk of circuit court. Next year’s budget has about $99 million in one-time money, meaning it won’t necessarily reoccur the following year. Half of that will be needed this year to support existing services, Hagan said, leaving about $50 million that could be re-appropriated.
But putting all that money into transportation would take it away from parks, animal welfare or programs for children and the aged, he said, and it wouldn’t make a dent in the county’s transportation deficit.
To further hammer home his case, Hagan cited two unfunded road projects — widening Lithia-Pinecrest and Bell Shoals roads. The Lithia-Pinecrest project will cost $100 million; Bell Shoals Road, $75 million. So if every bit of the $50 million in available county money was put toward transportation, it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit, Hagan said.
“So please,” Hagan said, “enough with the nonsense that we can simply re-prioritize our existing budget to meet our transportation needs. That’s simply inaccurate.”