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Vote on Go Hillsborough tax increase not likely before February

TAMPA — Once slated for December, a Hillsborough County Commission vote on a sales tax increase for transportation projects is now likely to come no earlier than February, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

The vote has been postponed because of problems scheduling a commission workshop on mobility fees, a vital component of the overall transportation plan called Go Hillsborough. Mobility fees, once adopted, will make developers pay more toward transportation improvements connected to their new subdivisions or commercial projects, county leaders say.

The workshop is now scheduled for Feb. 4. Barring some unforeseen developments, Merrill said he thinks the county commission could vote at its Feb. 17 meeting to set a referendum for next November on a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase.

If passed, the money would raise $117 million a year to finance more than 400 projects, including new roads and road resurfacing, bike and walking trails, expanded bus service and a pilot commuter rail in Tampa.

“We’re going to spend January talking about projects and the plan, and then talk about revenues in February,” Merrill said. “I think it will still be my plan to bring the ordinance to the board for both the mobility fees and the sales tax at the second meeting in February.”

In some ways, delaying the commission vote on the tax could be a good thing for proponents. Go Hillsborough is still under the cloud of a sheriff’s office investigation Merrill requested in September. Investigators are looking into suspicions about back-room dealings in the hiring of the Go Hillsborough consultant, engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Merrill said the investigation will be completed by Christmas, removing an obstacle that has stymied public deliberations on the transportation plan and tax. If no criminal activity is found, the public discussion can get back to what’s in the transportation plan.

“I think it’s great that they’re taking the time to focus on projects,” said Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-mass transit group Connect Tampa Bay. “I think some of the politicians have been focused on the politics of this. That’s not where the voters want us focused.”

Thurman was referring to efforts by the tea party and other conservative groups to use the Parsons Brinckerhoff controversy to derail Go Hillsborough. At recent county commission meetings, the anti-tax activists have urged commissioners to shut down Go Hillsborough, thus scuttling the tax vote next November.

At least two commissioners seemed to have been swayed by the scandal.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, saying Go Hillsborough had “lost its way,” reneged on a campaign promise to support whatever plan came out of the city-county transportation Policy Leadership Group. The group voted 8-3 on Nov. 5 to recommend that the half-cent tax go on the ballot.

On the eve of that Policy Leadership Group vote, Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out an alternative plan for transportation, financed by a variety of taxes and a mobility fee. Murman thus became a no vote, after months of equivocation.

The uproar over the Parsons contact began with a WTSP-TV report that suggested public relations consultant Beth Leytham played a role in getting the engineering firm hired. Leytham, who has worked under contract for Parsons, was later hired by the firm to do communications and public outreach for Go Hillsborough.

Leytham denies playing any part in getting Parsons hired and said she is cooperating with the sheriff’s office investigation.

“I’m going above and beyond to be cooperative,” she said. “I fully intend to sit down and be interviewed when they’re ready. I want to be interviewed.”

Merrill said delaying the final commission vote on the referendum is not a bad thing. A delay will give the county time to talk to the public about specific projects so people will know what they’re voting for if the sales tax gets to the ballot.

“The most important thing is that we get everybody focused on the plan — what folks are getting out of it,” Merrill said. “It’s really about a thriving economy and jobs, safe streets, and quality of life. That’s what people will be able to touch and feel with this thing.”

If the commission does vote to put the transportation plan and tax up for a vote, the county’s role in Go Hillsborough role will be over. At that point, business interests will lead a private campaign to pass the ballot measure. Beginning that campaign later rather than sooner may actually be better for the pro-tax forces, experts say.

“It seems to be the consensus that the shorter the private campaign the better,” Merrill said, “probably because it’s just a limited attention span and you want to have a more focused campaign that doesn’t get stale over longer period of time.”

If the commission passes the sales tax ordinance in February, Merrill said the private campaign could potentially start in March.

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Twitter: @mikesaltbo

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