Put transit on ballot

Published Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Today's Hillsborough County Commission meeting is sure to center on the immediate, dysfunctional mess caused by three warring senior county employees. But if commissioners truly want to serve taxpayers, they won't let it eclipse a far more significant matter: Putting a 1-cent sales surtax for transit on the November ballot.

For sure, the commission should fire County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee today. The two have lost all credibility since county auditor Jim Barnes accused their offices of accessing his e-mails. Barnes said the snooping occurred after he faulted the pair for taking a secret pay raise in 2007. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident. Bean and Lee deny any wrongdoing.

But the two should have been fired for providing weak leadership long before this scandal. County business cannot be allowed to grind to a halt while Bean and Lee play out their personal legal drama on the taxpayers' time.

The bigger question on today's commission agenda, and for the county's future, is this: Do voters deserve a chance to decide for themselves whether they want to pay for light rail, better roads and a far superior bus system? Commissioners are expected to discuss potential ballot language and a revenue-sharing deal between the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

It is time to act. Contrary to the claims of Commissioners Jim Norman and Rose Ferlita, this proposal is a thoughtful and fair strategy for modernizing the county's transportation system. If commissioners oppose the tax — fine. But give Hills- borough voters the same opportunity. A board that refuses to address transportation should not also deny the people the right to express their will at the ballot box.

Ferlita needs to decide what she stands for and commission Chairman Ken Hagan needs to start calling the vote. There is clearly political value in having as many board Republicans as possible behind the referendum. But Ferlita is all over the map. She questions details that have been asked and answered. She floats conspiracy theories. She complains the process is being rushed — then drops new ballot language on her colleagues at the 11th hour.

The referendum and the framework for spending the money have been the subject of careful study — largely by the two area transit agencies on whose boards Ferlita sits. There are no gray areas in how the projects would be financed, operated or governed, and the plan has a strong regional component to integrate transportation across the Tampa Bay area. That is why localities throughout the region have embraced the referendum as a first step toward building a modern transportation system on Florida's west coast.

Four commissioners have already signaled they support putting the tax on the ballot. The danger is that a minority on the board will continue to raise red herrings and run out the clock. Public officials have spent three years putting a package together; voters deserve at least a fraction of that time to make an informed decision. The commission has a solid referendum. Ferlita needs to choose whether to support it. And Hagan needs to schedule the vote.


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