Transit tax proposal closer

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, November 4, 2009

TAMPA — Hillsborough County took a baby step Wednesday toward placing a transit tax proposal on the ballot in 2010.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to have the county attorney craft a resolution saying the board intends to pursue a sales tax referendum for the November 2010 ballot.

The resolution language is scheduled to come back to commissioners for another vote Dec. 2. A vote on actual ballot language is not likely until at least February, after the board debates how, specifically, proceeds from the proposed 1-cent sales tax increase would be used.

The public will get the opportunity to chime in as well.

Mark Sharpe, the board's biggest champion of the proposal, acknowledge the political challenge of pitching a tax increase in a sagging economy. But he said it will ultimately help reshape Hillsborough's transportation and economic future for the better, serving as an antidote to roadway gridlock and rising fuel prices while spurring redevelopment.

"I want to be able to say to our future generations, 'We didn't just sit there,'" Sharpe said.

Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Jim Norman voted against pursuing the resolution. Each provided flavors of the debate to come.

"I wonder what we're going to tell our kids 20, 30 years from now when they say, 'Where's my money?' " Higginbotham said.

He also objected to voting on a resolution in advance of approving ballot language.

The resolution will give backers some reassurance that the public will get to vote on the question, so they can begin raising money to promote it. But Higginbotham noted they will not have to disclose who is donating money until actual ballot language is approved.

That will prevent voters from seeing who is bankrolling the effort, he said, though the same is true for the opposition.

Norman said that, while the new tax would pay for roads and added buses, it will be viewed mainly as a proposal to build light rail. And he said any rail initiative must be pursued in concert with surrounding counties in order to be successful.

"I support a complete system, not a fragmented one," he said.

A 23-member Transportation Task Force, created by Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, is recommending a permanent 1-cent increase to the current 7-cent sales tax. The increase would raise billions of dollars to build and run a rail system, double the county bus fleet and widen roads.

Three-fourths of the money would go toward the rail and bus system, which would include new express and regional routes. The rest would go primarily for road work, particularly in areas not near proposed rail lines.

Money for rail would pay, initially, for two main lines. One would link downtown to the University of South Florida area. The other would connect downtown to the West Shore business district.

It would be built for easy expansion into surrounding counties if they approve rail systems of their own.

Hagan said the recommendation is a starting point for commission discussion. It leaves the board with plenty of flexibility to adjust how and when the money would be used, and to respond to public suggestions.

"Our work as a board is just beginning," he said.

In other action:

• Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a request from residents of Sun City Center, pitched by board member Kevin Beckner, to build a golf cart path to and across U.S. 301. The path, expected to cost from $250,000 to $300,000, would more safely enable residents to cross from their neighborhoods to a Walmart store and public bus hub.

• The board agreed to spend up to $400,000 studying the feasibility of merging its water and wastewater utility with those of Hillsborough's three cities and seven independently operated systems. Commissioner Jim Norman has proposed the idea as a means of saving money long term.

• Commissioners also officially killed a proposal to convert vacant space they lease at Floriland Office Center into a homeless shelter, something the property owner and nearby residents opposed.

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