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Friday, Jul 21, 2017
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HART takes no action, but continues debate on raising taxes for bus service

TAMPA — After dozens of studies, public meetings, forums, plans and votes, Hillsborough's transit leaders still don't know how they'll raise money for the county's struggling bus system.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Jeff Vinik: Politicians are holding back Tampa Bay's transit future

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board held a special meeting Monday to consider raising the millage rate that pays for the county's bus system — something it hasn't done since 2012. HART's charter caps the millage rate at .5 mills, where it currently stands.

HART board chair and county commissioner Les Miller asked the board's attorney to explain what steps would have to be taken place to raise the cap.

"I don't want anyone falling out of your chairs or passing out," Miller told the board, which includes at least three of its 13 members who have voted or spoken publicly against raising taxes for transit.

Any additional increase would have to be approved first by the HART board. Then the Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa and Temple Terrace city councils would have to approve it. Only then would it go on the ballot as a county-wide referendum.

The transit agency is facing a several-million-dollar shortfall, which prompted staff to propose a redesigned bus network that would cut 20 percent of the current routes.

"We do have really large infrastructure needs that continue to be unmet," said HART chief financial officer Jeff Seward.

Those needs total more than $100 million, Seward said.

"I think it's an outrage and a shame that we have so little we dedicate to our transit system," Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said. "I'm supporting anything because I think we're critical care where we are now …What we're doing is so inadequate."

HART's budget is much smaller than most similar-sized agencies nationwide, which rely on a variety of funding sources, such as a sales tax, gas tax, state and federal dollars and vehicle registration fees. Across the bay, Pinellas' budget isn't much more robust. Though, unlike HART, it does have money saved in reserves.

Transit spending per capita in Tampa Bay is half of San Antonio's, a third of Denver's and a quarter of Pittsburgh's. At $57 per person, it's comparable to Sheboygan, Wisc., and Macon, Ga.

Previous attempts to drum up money for transit in Tampa Bay included an attempt on each side of the bay to raise the sales tax by 1 cent. Hillsborough voters shot that referendum down in 2010, and Pinellas voters followed suit in 2014.

Politicians, board members and advocates have spent much of the past decade debating the merits of various funding sources, but continue to fall short of passing any measures.

Monday's meeting comes just a few days after Tampa businessman Jeff Vinik said politicians' inaction is holding Tampa Bay back on transit. Vinik and nearly 20 others business leaders recently traveled to Charlotte to learn more about bus, rail and development.

HART Board members Monday discussed other financial options, such as finding money within the existing county ballot and the often-discussed path of allowing cities to hold their own sales tax referenda.

Kemp, who expressed frustration that other places have figured out how to pay for transit while Hillsborough continues to lag behind, asked for a presentation on how other agencies in Florida and around the country pay for their systems.

Commissioner and vice-chair Karen Jaroch asked HART staff to research whether individual cities can have individual millage rates that generate dedicated pots of money within HART. Staff is researching whether Lakeland or other municipalities do something similar.

"It's so polarized," Jaroch said. "You have people who really want transit, and you have the other side who, they're not going to benefit from it and they're not going to likely to want to see their taxes increased. That could be a solution to maybe meet everybody's needs."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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