TAMPA — After two years of meetings and public workshops, Hillsborough commissioners are not even close to a consensus on how to pay for needed road and mass transit improvements.
The level of division on the seven-person board was evident Wednesday as yet another commissioner came forward with an alternative to the Go Hillsborough transportation plan developed last year at a cost of $1.3 million.
The plan depends on commissioners putting a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot and voters approving it. Their decision is scheduled for April 6.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a supporter of the sales tax, proposed it be levied for 10 years instead of the 30 years approved by city and county leaders in November. Decreasing the length of the tax, Beckner said, would answer critics who say they don’t trust the government to wisely spend the $3.5 billion the tax would raise over 30 years.
“By implementing a 30-year plan, we’re basically telling people, ‘Hey, trust us,’” Beckner said.
Beckner also proposed putting $319 million toward mass transit, three times the amount the Go Hillsborough plan apportions for buses, street cars and rail. Beckner said many of his fellow Democrats around the county have turned against Go Hillsborough because it lacks a significant commitment to transit.
But Jean Duncan, director of Tampa’s Transportation and Stormwater Department, said reducing the tax to 10 years would hurt the city’s efforts to attract federal funds to extend the city’s street car system and to build a commuter rail from downtown to Tampa International Airport.
“We need a 30-year plan to leverage those dollars for the street car extension and the rail extension to TIA, and 30 years is needed for operations and maintenance,” Duncan, who was at the commissioner workshop, said. “The 10 years does not support transit in that regard.”
Commissioners also showed little interest in Beckner’s plan. The harshest critics were commissioners Ken Hagan and Les Miller, both of whom support the sales tax.
In his remarks, Hagan alluded to the other alternative transportation proposal put forward by Commissioner Sandy Murman in November. Murman proposed discarding the sales tax in favor of a group of other revenue sources, including a 5-cents-per-gallon gas tax.
The county’s Policy Leadership Group, made up county commissioners and city mayors, ignored Murman’s alternative, voting instead for the sales tax referendum.
Hagan, in an apparent effort to call Murman out, suggested that commissioners who supported a gas tax increase “put it on the floor and we’ll vote it up or down.” Murman didn’t bite.
“I heard it through the grapevine that was coming; I was prepared for the comment,” Murman said after the meeting, referring to Hagan’s ploy. “But to totally discount any options would be premature. Not knowing if the half-cent referendum is going to pass our commission, do you want to be left with no options?”
Hagan expressed frustration that commissioners, who in just six weeks will vote on whether to hold the referendum, are still floating alternatives that will not address the county’s backlog of failed roads and lack of transit.
“We spent nearly three years illustrating our enormous transportation deficit and the dire straits of our transportation network,” Hagan said. “We are weeks away from scheduling a referendum and we are still chasing our tails.”
Hagan said the county’s $9.7 billion transportation deficit, as computed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Agency, will never be reduced without a stable, reliable revenue source. That deficit will grow, he said, when an expected 500,000 new residents move into the county over the next 25 years.
“If we genuinely want to attack this problem, a significant and dedicated funding source is required,” Hagan said, “one that will allow us to leverage our revenues and attract federal funding.”
Hagan said he had no argument with Murman and Beckner’s proposal to put more money from current property taxes toward transportation.
“We do have to make this commitment if for no other reason than it will help stop the bleeding,” he said.
Hagan found an ally in County Administrator Mike Merrill, who spoke frankly to his bosses about the inability of current county revenues to make a significant dent in the road and transit deficit.
Merrill explained that, though the county has a $4.8 billion budget, 67 percent of the funds can’t be touched. That money is either restricted for different reasons, is in reserves needed for emergencies and to uphold the county’s AAA bond rating, or is not really cash but transfers between accounts. About 11 percent of the budget supports the county’s constitutional officers, such as the clerk of court, sheriff and tax collector.
The only source of unrestricted money in the budget would be the budget for departments under the county administrator, Merrill said. If commissioners choose to use those funds, the result will be service cuts — to the elderly, children and poor people. Merrill painted a scenario under which the commission chambers are filled with unhappy people protesting the cuts — more people than the handful that now show up to protest the Go Hillsborough sales tax.
“You are the policy makers, but I think it’s my responsibility to at least let you know what the consequences are,” Merrill said. “The numbers don’t add up.”
Some of Merrill’s comments were aimed at Commissioner Victor Crist, who is the likely swing vote on the sale tax. Three commissioners — Murman, Stacy White and Al Higginbotham — are opposed to holding the referendum.
Crist has suggested that Merrill can find more money for transportation in the $4.8 billion county budget. On Wednesday, he proposed that Merrill form a “blue ribbon task force” made up of private sector and government officials who would look for budget savings that could be re-appropriated for transportation.
Crist also criticized government and business leaders who may support a tax for roads and transit, but have remained silent, ceding ground to Go Hillsborough’s critics.
“We’ve got five constitutional officers. Not one of them has stepped up to the plate and taken a side on this. They’ve been running to the hills and hiding,” Crist said. “But each one of them has something to lose if we start whacking their budgets.”
Crist’s suggestions got no support.