Penny tax up to voters
May 14, 2010
Hillsborough County voters will decide in November whether they want to pay an additional 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects ranging from a light rail system to new bus routes and roads.
County commissioners listened to about three hours of public comment Thursday night before voting 5-2 to put the transit tax on the Nov. 2 ballot. Commissioners Mark Sharpe, Kevin Beckner, Rose Ferlita, Ken Hagan and Kevin White voted to send the question to voters. Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham voted no.
Approval of the measure was expected. The five commissioners who voted yes have long maintained their support for letting voters decide whether to raise their taxes for increased transportation options. Norman and Higginbotham have opposed the measure from the beginning.
"This is the wrong time to put a 1 cent sales tax on a county that's losing its houses and losing its jobs," Norman said.
White argued that transportation improvements built with the tax proceeds would boost the economy and make the county more desirable for businesses.
"The economic development that comes along with this project will put residents of Hillsborough County and surrounding counties to work for years to come," White said.
A well-behaved crowd of between 300 and 400 people showed up, and 174 signed up to speak. Supporters, many wearing green shirts with stickers that said, "I support moving Hillsborough forward," seemed to dominate. They often cheered speakers who spoke in favor of the tax.
"I spend my life in the car," said Betty Carlin, who said she commutes 60 miles round-trip from her home in Riverview to her job in Tampa. "I urge you to put this on the ballot so we can decide what we want and how we want to invest in our future needs."
Many opponents of the tax wore red shirts representing the Tampa Tea Party or black shirts of the Tampa 912 Patriots. They argued that the projects put forward by the county Transportation Task Force and approved by county commissioners are ill-conceived and would need massive subsidies from taxpayers.
Shirley Wood of Lithia-Pine Crest said her home will be 30 miles away from the nearest rail station. During the past three years, Wood said, she has seen the price of renewing her driver's license and car tag double, while gas prices skyrocket.
"But our cars are still going to be necessary," said Wood, a member of the 912 Patriots. "This is not going to go away because of rail in Hillsborough County."
Other critics said increasing the sales tax from 7 cents a dollar to 8 cents would be a drag on an already crippled economy.
"One cent is a 14 percent increase in the sales tax rate in the middle of a depression," said Tea Party member Bill Frysinger. "I don't think that's very good."
However, some business interests in the crowd argued for the tax, noting that Forbes Magazine has rated the Tampa Bay area as having one of the worst commutes in the country. Young professionals will not want to move to a metropolitan area without a sophisticated transit system, they said.
"The fact is we see no reasonable alternative and have heard no plans from the opposition explaining how they will address the ever-increasing backlog of transportation needs," said Mike Peterson, representing the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors. Peterson drew laughs when he said the Realtors were not "some giddy liberal group supporting a tax increase without reason."
Other supporters could not refrain from putting some of the blame for the county's snarled transportation system on present and past county commissions. George Niemann of Dover accused commissioners of "rubber-stamping" growth without sufficient roads and utilities in place.
"So please, admit to us you've learned your lesson and you'll make growth pay for itself," Niemann said.
Perhaps the most poignant speaker was Joel Marvin Rosenberg, 64, who is working part-time jobs. He said his wife cleans houses and watches elderly, homebound patients to make ends meet.
"I can't afford any more taxes," Rosenberg said. "I don't see where rail would benefit my wife and I."
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