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Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

‘Go Hillsborough’ supporters promised to listen, and they have

Coaxing people to willingly pay higher taxes is always a tough sell, but it can be done if the need is legitimate and the public feels like proponents are shooting straight.

Hillsborough County isn’t always noted for its candor with voters, though. People complain all the time about feeling in the dark about the top-down way government spends its money. So, give the people at Go Hillsborough credit for at least talking with voters and not just at them.

That’s the group advocating for a proposed half-cent sales tax increase to pay for road and transportation needs, assuming the county commission puts it on the ballot in November 2016.

This has been a transparent process thus far.

Leaders are not assuming they know everything and you’ll be happy to fork over your dough. That’s a sure-fire way to lose, even when the need is as obvious as it is now.

They said they would take their case to the people, and they have. Backers have held 36 town hall meetings all over the county to soften the ground with voters. They are trying to explain the need.

Maybe more importantly, the leaders are listening to what residents say.

For starters, they found out, among other things, that we really like our cars.

“Citizen input and community feedback is clear on this point, and a community transportation plan must acknowledge that the automobile is currently the dominant means of transportation used by them,” a Go Hillsborough report said.

It went on to say citizens consider the lack of reliable road maintenance “intolerable.”

Better bus service?

Good idea.

Light rail?

Very little love.

Agree or not, but at least a clear picture of what people want is emerging. That’s a good idea, since the people will be asked to pay for it.

Backers aren’t stopping there. They have scheduled another 56 workshops this year, two each in the county’s 28 public libraries.

County Administrator Mike Merrill might even show up at your house and grill some steaks if you ask him real nice. You’ll have to sit through a transportation presentation, though. Could be a deal-breaker.

But seriously, the pitch is meat-and-potatoes basic.

The tax would generate an estimated $117.5 million per year, or about $3.5 billion over its proposed 30-year life. The money would go primarily for road repair, construction, an expanded bus fleet and maybe even some love for Tampa’s sagging downtown street car system.

Skeptics, especially members of the tea party, are wondering exactly what projects are on the table. Why start with a plan to increase taxes before you know for sure what you want to build?

I guess there’s a point to be made there — a small point.

All Go Hillsborough says now is that the money will pay for maintaining and fixing roads, reducing congestion, building and widening roads, doubling the transit service and making safety improvements for walkers and bicyclists. That’s a little vague.

By the time people go to vote 16 months from now, though, there should be no excuse for not knowing exactly what the stakes are. A complete list of projects is supposed to be ready by the end of the year.

It doesn’t mean the measure will pass, of course. There is an argument to be made that a sales tax hike hits lower-income people hardest, and even Go Hillsborough backers concede the money won’t come close to paying for all the need.

My guess is they’ll be back in a few years, looking for more.

At least they’re listening now, though, instead of lecturing to the people.

That’s a pretty good start.

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