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Hillsborough businesses ready to cheer sales tax hike for transportation

Business organizations are gearing up to lead the campaign to pass a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects if county commissioners agree to put the tax on the November 2016 ballot.

The campaign will begin to come together sometime early next year following a December vote by commissioners to put the measure on the ballot. How the campaign will be structured is unclear, though both business and government leaders expect the business community to be in the forefront.

“I think we’re looking at how we build a coalition of organizations like ourselves to be out there and talking about this,” said Mickey Jacob, co-chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce transportation council. “We want to be right in the middle of the debate and the discussion.”

Business leaders often back such referendums because of a widely perceived nexus between economic development and a top-flight road and mass transit network. Surveys by economic development groups show the Tampa area’s transportation network is a major drawback in the eyes of out-of-town business leaders considering a move here.

“From my perspective, the issue that keeps coming up over and over is transportation,” said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. “And it’s critical we respond and be able to say, ‘Look: We’re doing something about it.’ ”

State law prevents local governments from using public money to advocate on behalf of a sales tax. That means the private sector will have to raise money for the Hillsborough campaign, which likely will include heavy doses of mass media. Private-sector leadership has been the model in many other transportation tax referendums, including the unsuccessful 2010 initiative in Hills­borough County that was led by the Tampa Bay Partnership, a business group.

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An exception, however, was last year’s Greenlight Pinellas campaign for a 1-cent sales tax increase. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, a public agency, was heavily involved in the campaign, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into activities labeled as education. The PSTA attorney said the agency’s advertisements and telephone town halls to discuss the tax were legal as long as terms such as “vote for” and “support” were not used.

That won’t happen in Hillsborough, said County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who does not see the Hillsborough Area Transit Authority playing a major role in the Go Hillsborough campaign.

“I do not envision the county or HART being involved in any manner regarding the private-sector campaign; I think that’s dangerous ground,” Hagan said. “I think PSTA ended up making fatal flaw. We want to avoid the self-inflicted grenade even getting remotely close.”

Hagan, who has been in close communication with business leaders, said nothing has been decided regarding the campaign’s structure. Those decisions could happen late this year after the county comes up with a concrete list of projects that would be funded by the tax.

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The final project list will come out of 56 workshops the county is scheduling in the late summer months. At the same time, County Administrator Mike Merrill will continue to speak to homeowners associations and civic groups about the need for transportation funding.

Hagan said he expects a private-sector campaign committee will be formed after the first of the year to raise money and provide oversight. Merrill said the group will likely “organize themselves.”

Hagan said he wants to see a citizens advisory committee that includes some neighborhood leaders to advise the campaign’s executive committee.

“That’s how I envision we can dig down to the grass roots,” he said.

Hagan said he also expects the campaign committee to hire a private consultant with experience advising other tax referendum efforts. The consultant should also have some familiarity with the county’s demographics and voting patterns, Hagan said.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm that has been paid $1 million so far for Go Hillsborough outreach and polling and will be paid an additional $300,000 for the upcoming workshops, will not be the consultant hired for the campaign, Hagan said.

Despite the challenges in passing any new tax, Go Hillsborough proponents feel they will benefit from mistakes made by the failed referendums in Pinellas last year and in Hills­borough in 2010. For instance, Go Hillsborough’s proposed plan will not include a light rail system. Rail became a coalescing issue for the opposition to both losing referendums.

“I think there were some people opposed to (rail) but they were opposed to it because they didn’t understand the value of it,” said Joe Farrell, campaign manager for Friends of Greenlight, a private-sector group that raised money for that campaign. Farrell said voters figured if the rail didn’t run near their job or home, it had no value to them.

“They didn’t understand the economic development aspect, the way it shapes traffic patterns that could help traffic and how it helps the environment,” Farrell said.

Based on responses to questions posed at the public workshops, the Go Hillsborough plan has roughly two-thirds of the new revenue from the tax going to road maintenance and new roads, while just one-third is earmarked for mass transit, meaning buses.

“Greenlight was more rail-centric,” Hagan said. “Based on both (previous) initiatives, there was a need for specificity and a need for more of a focus on roads.”

Another difference is that Go Hillsborough is asking for a half-penny increase in the sales tax, not the 1-cent-per-dollar hikes on last year’s Greenlight Pinellas ballot measure and the 2010 Hillsborough tax vote. A poll done by Parsons Brinckerhoff showed a half-cent increase got support from 52 percent of participants. Hillsborough’s 2010 referendum failed by 58-42 percent. Greenlight Pinellas lost by a 62-38 percent margin.

Another reason Go Hillsborough supporters think they can win is because of the county’s extensive public outreach campaign, something that many observers said was lacking in the 2010 referendum. The county held 36 public workshops during the spring and summer, as well as two telephone town halls. At least 56 more workshops, two at every county public library, will be held late this summer.

“That’s the one thing that everyone has made a lot of is that we’re out there talking to the public and asking the public to get engaged,” Merrill said. “Just the fact that the people want me to come talk to them about it, it’s a good sign. They want to learn.”

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That level of engagement not only creates public interest and buy-in, supporters say, but it will yield a final project list that residents from around the county have said they’ll support.

That leads to another widely agreed key to success: having something for everyone in the project list. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said that was the difference between the successful Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax, which voters have approved three times, and Greenlight Pinellas. Residents know when they drive by libraries, bridges and police stations that they were funded by Penny for Pinellas, Welch said.

“We have 24 cities in Pinellas,” Welch said. “Each of those councils was able to go in their neighborhoods and say, ‘This is what the penny will provide funding for.’ We obviously didn’t have that with Greenlight.”

Former Hillsborough Commissioner Ed Turanchik said a similar parallel can be drawn between the Go Hillsborough plan for specific projects and the Community Investment Tax passed by Hills­borough voters in 1996. The half-penny tax is best known for building Raymond James Stadium, helping keep the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in town.

But 25 percent of the tax was earmarked for new schools. Libraries, stormwater drainage systems, police cars and parks were also built with the money, and people knew that, Turanchik said.

“It got so specific we put signs for every project that would get funded by the half-cent sales tax so people would know what they would get for their money,” Turanchik said. “And that level of detail is what the county commission is heading to and what HART is heading to. That’s very important for people to make a decision on supporting it or not supporting it.”

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