Kick red herrings off the train
February 15, 2010
A few issues remain to be decided before Hillsborough County commissioners can approve the final details of the transportation referendum in November.
The big questions have all been resolved, yet a recent commission workshop gave the false appearance of confusion. Enough red herrings appeared to befuddle all but the most diligent observer.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham talked about grabbing a snake "that will either bite you or suffocate you."
Commissioner Jim Norman suggested that tax money collected from Hillsborough taxpayers be given to a seven-county agency to spend. Perhaps he really does want tax dollars collected in Hillsborough to be controlled by politicians from as far away as Citrus and Sarasota counties, which have no financial stake in the deal, but more likely he was dragging a red herring to distract the hounds from the scent of the fox.
If Higginbotham and Norman don't trust voters to decide whether to increase the sales tax to expand bus service, add a rail line and improve selected roads, they should just say so.
Instead, Norman calls it kingdom-building to name a citizens committee to issue periodic reports on how the money is being spent.
Higginbotham questioned whether enough money would be raised to fix the huge backlog of road needs. Norman said that spending 25 percent of the revenue on roads was like putting lipstick on a pig.
Commissioner Mark Sharp was clearly exasperated by their repeated attempts at misdirection.
"That's what this whole two-year exercise was about, coming up with an alternative to just simply widening roads, which we don't have the money to do and which we've shown won't work," he reminded them.
It has already been decided to split the revenue from the 1-cent tax 75-25, with the larger portion going to transit. That's how much it is estimated to cost to build a reasonably good transit network.
The 25 percent going to roads is not to bail out developers. It could be seen as an effort to bribe voters, if offering them a chance to buy what they need with their own money can be considered bribery. We consider it good government.
The road money is included as a transparent effort to share the benefits of the tax with areas of the county in need of road improvements, some of which new bus routes will follow. The county has a number of high-priority road projects it cannot afford to build. They are on the much-reviewed transportation plan, and building them shouldn't be controversial.
How to divide the money is not a challenge of overwhelming complexity. Several good ideas have been suggested that treat everyone fairly, including less-populated areas.
The fear of bureaucratic kingdom-building by a new agency is totally unfounded. Mayor Pam Iorio, whose leadership has helped bring the rail issue forward - despite the foot-dragging of Norman and Higginbotham and the silence of County Administrator Pat Bean - has offered a simple suggestion.
Iorio suggests that a nine-member committee periodically report on how the new tax money is being spent. Three citizens would have experience in accounting and three in transportation. They would be joined by the county clerk, a county-named auditor and a Tampa-named auditor.
Broader oversight of how the project is being implemented could be done by an occasional gathering of the three mayors and county manager.
If the board doesn't understand how all this might work, they could invite Iorio to the podium to explain.
Cities all over the country have raised ballot questions on rail and buses, and principled, informed voters will disagree on the right course of action. But those who don't want a vote simply mistrust the majority, and that's undemocratic.
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