Commissioners spar over 'rail' on transit tax ballot
February 26, 2010
It's still not certain whether Hillsborough County voters will see a 1-cent sales tax for transportation on November's ballot, but a plan is now in place for dividing the money if the tax passes.
After contentious debate Thursday, county commissioners approved a plan that would give Hillsborough County 90 percent of the tax proceeds earmarked for road projects for 10 years.
The remaining 10 percent would be split between Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City on a formula based roughly on population. After 10 years, the amount of money going to the county for roads would be reduced to 40 percent.
However, commissioners refused to approve ballot language they said changed late Wednesday afternoon. The original language said that 75 percent of the tax proceeds would fund "a rail rapid transit system and enhanced bus service," and 25 percent would go to roads. A new version that commissioners said they received at 6:30 p.m. removed the word "rail."
"If we haven't finalized what we're doing, how can we in good faith bring something to the voters because it's changing every moment?" Commissioner Rose Ferlita said with frustration after the meeting.
Ferlita joined tax opponents Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham in voting against the plan for appropriating the road money, which had been worked out between county staff and mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. Commissioners Mark Sharpe, Kevin White, Kevin Beckner and Chairman Ken Hagan voted for the plan.
Norman and Higginbotham said deleting the word "rail" from the ballot language was meant to mislead voters about a transportation plan built primarily on a rail system in Tampa.
"Man up," Norman said, looking at Sharpe. "Tell the people what they're voting on. That's my challenge to you."
Higginbotham said after the meeting he had heard that Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio asked for rail to be taken out of the ballot language. Iorio, a rail proponent who was at the meeting, denied it. In an e-mail to The Tampa Tribune, Iorio said a consultant for HART, the public transportation authority, was responsible for ballot language.
However, Iorio agreed with taking "rail" out of the ballot language. She said it was misleading because a majority of the tax proceeds will go to roads and to expand the public bus system, including new express corridors and circulator systems in the unincorporated areas of the county.
"It does a disservice to people who will not be served by rail to say they will not be served by other transit," Iorio said.
The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, an agency that plans transportation projects, estimates that 42 percent of the total proceeds from the 1-cent tax increase would go to rail. The remaining 58 percent would go to roads and improvements to the countywide bus service.
However, of the 75 percent of the tax proceeds earmarked for "transit" projects, 56 percent would go to the light rail system, with the remainder going to buses.
In addition to being frustrated by the late ballot language change, Ferlita also said the ordinance to approve the referendum does not give voters an avenue to repeal the tax if hoped-for state and federal grants fall through and promised projects can't be built.
Commissioners will discuss the ordinance again Wednesday at a regular board meeting.
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