October 9, 2010

Businesses, downtown Tampa interests fueling transit tax campaign

By Marlene Sokol, Times Staff Writer

Downtown is driving the transit tax proposal. It's suburbia that's not quite all on board.

TAMPA - From different ends of Hillsborough County they are mothers, each with teenage children, and opposing views of the proposed transit tax.

Karen Jaroch of Northdale estimates a 1-cent sales tax would cost her family $700 a year.

"There may be a bus or two up Dale Mabry Highway," she said. "But I'm certainly not going to see any real improvements over the next 20 years."

Betty Carlin of Riverview has a job in Tampa, a husband who works in Sun City Center and a daughter who starts her day at King High School near Temple Terrace at 7 a.m.

With just two cars, she said, "My family is struggling, and our situation is not unique. It's a matter of: How can families do this?"

At issue, for these and other voters is this question on the Nov. 2 ballot: Should the sales tax go up a penny to pay for a light rail, an expanded bus system, and improvements to roads and bridges?

Proponents say the plan would bolster the local economy while opponents predict it would be an underused boondoggle.

Each side has a political committee, with the pro-tax group far more successful at raising money.

For every $1 donated to No Tax for Tracks, individuals and businesses have given roughly $75 to Moving Hillsborough Forward, whose donor list is a veritable who's who of corporate Tampa Bay.

A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll suggested the pro-rail donors are getting their money's worth, with slightly more than half of probable voters supporting the tax.

Not to worry, said Jaroch, who calls Moving Hillsborough "the Goliath" to her organization's David.

And we all know how that story turned out.

"Rails are going right to downtown, where the businesses are," Jaroch said.

That's also a key source of the money.

In the busiest three-month period of the past year's campaign, 38 contributors in a six-mile swath of downtown Tampa gave $430,000 to Moving Hillsborough Forward, supervisor of elections records show.

Tampa Electric Co., People's Gas, Fifth Third Bank and two major law firms all wrote checks.

Another $147,000 came from a single ZIP code in the West Shore district, from law firms, restaurants and real estate interests.

To date, Moving Hillsborough Forward has raised $1.2 million from as far away as Orlando.

No Tax has raised $17,000, most of it in $25 and $50 increments from wallet-conscious suburbanites.

Some, including Jaroch, are affiliated with radio host Glenn Beck's conservative 9-12 project, whose Tampa chapter donated $25 in July and another $2,572 in September.

But Jaroch said it would be a mistake to assume their supporters are all conservative or Republican.

"It's a mixture," she said. "We have a couple of teachers working with us on a YouTube video. We have professionals, small business owners, I have even met college students."

For Jaroch, the issue is as ideological as it is practical.

She said she is concerned about runaway government spending, an issue that caught her interest during the final months of the Bush administration, with the stimulus program and corporate bailouts.

"We believe the facts are on our side," she said.

So do the Moving Hillsborough Forward supporters, and they are able to spread their facts virally. In addition to old-fashioned community meetings, there are interactive TeleTown Hall meetings that let people participate from the comfort of their homes.

Mythical personalities Mobility Mike and Commuter Carly check in with donors via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook, providing talking points for those impromptu conversations at the water cooler and backyard fence.

Kevin Mineer, a professional planner with the Genesis consulting group, was thrilled when, after donating $50 online to Moving Hillsborough Forward, someone posted a campaign sign on his Palma Ceia lawn.

A self-described "train nut" whose family rode the rails to New York for a vacation, he says this of transit: "I think it's one of the marks of what makes a city a city."

He despairs that elderly people become trapped in their homes, or assisted living facilities, when they can no longer drive.

At 49, it doesn't bother him that a rail system could be many years in the making.

"We're building it for our grandkids," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 624-2739.


Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

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