April 15 was an extraordinary day. The rare mashup of grassroots activists and Chamber of Commerce leaders all speaking to a common goal was impressive. Last Wednesday, 17 out of 18 speakers were passionate in their virtual pleas to the Hillsborough County Commissioners in support of continuing the 1% transit tax voters already passed in November 2018. Oddly enough, the public hearing was also about a new referendum, which could be on the November ballot (a back-up tax in case the Florida Supreme Court finds the November 2018 tax unconstitutional.)
This is a very detailed and confusing issue, but the Cliff Notes version is that in 2018, over 57% of the voters, in every single district supported a 1% sales tax to fund transportation in Hillsborough County. A lone east county commissioner, Stacy White, disagreed and filed a lawsuit challenging the referendum.
That legal challenge is before the Florida Supreme Court and it appears from the judges’ tone and questioning that they are likely to throw out the tax. Hillsborough County Commissioners had the opportunity to schedule a hearing to discuss placing a fresh referendum on the November ballot.
The speakers were eloquent.
David Mechanik, past chair of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, which provides bus service to the county, began.
“As you know, the majority of voters in HIllsborough County recognized the need for an additional funding source for roads and transit. I recognize that there is a concern that many people will be economically devastated by the effects of the coronavirus,” Mechanik said. “While that is true, those people will require transit service more than ever, to seek jobs and hopefully go to their jobs. HART barely has sufficient funding to serve the existing demand and will need the surtax to be able to meet the increased demand.”
Bicycling activist Jim Shirk continued by saying, “When economic recovery begins, there will be a significant number of people, mostly working poor (and disproportionately people of color) who have lost access to a car. Cars cost money even if they aren't being driven (loan payments, insurance, etc.) and without transit, these people may not be able to 'go back to work.' This could further cripple and delay the recovery.”
Michele Cookson, a Seminole Heights neighborhood leader lent her voice and explained that, “We are all already paying this tax. Let’s keep it going so that we are best positioned to invest and ensure better times ahead as we go into a recovery period.”
The irony in this dramatic vote was that Les Miller, the commissioner representing the most urban neighborhood in the county, was both the initiator of this referendum and the proponent of delaying the vote.
When I spoke with him to better understand his vote, he explained that he had been an early supporter of the tax.
“In early 2018 I was the only commissioner trying to get it on the ballot. I worked with Go Hillsborough to insure the transportation tax’s success. I was livid about the lawsuit. When the coronavirus struck, that was a game changer for me. One out of four people in our area, 362,00, have lost their jobs. That's why I changed my mind. This is not the time to push a tax… we should be talking about how to help.”
Miller is term-limited, and one of the contenders for his seat is Tampa Heights Civic Association past president, Rick Fernandez, who argued that “Transportation/Transit is the circulatory system of a thriving metro area. We must not continue to deprive our county of oxygen. In this context, failure to back up the All For Transportation funding with a November ballot measure would be not only callous, but also the height of political malpractice. Please take this opportunity to bring us back on course.”
Sierra Club staffer Phil Compton commented, “ I was bitterly disappointed in Commissioner Miller's vote in particular, as he represents my East Tampa neighborhood. As the chair of HART, he should know how his many of his constituents have no choice but to spend thousands a year to own and operate a car because HART doesn't have the funds to run buses the way transit agencies do across the country—early, late and often, so people can get to work and back home safely and affordably. He let us all down, and set us back another few years in finally tackling our community's most cruel example of economic inequity. He didn't save anyone money—he cost many folks thousands they might have had before this crisis, but likely won't as we come out of it.”
Four Commissioners—Sandy Murman, Les Miller, Ken Hagan and Stacy White—voted to not schedule a public hearing until 2021 at the earliest. Pat Kemp, Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman were the proponents and pushed their hardest for the funding. Overman was clear in her anger.
“We will have to wait until 2022 to bring transportation solutions to our citizens and forgo bringing real jobs and training to our local citizens,” Overman said. “It’s a fallacy that not protecting the surtax protects our most vulnerable. It will hurt them more to not have those revenues to provide jobs and a safer and more economical way to get to them.”
Federal transportation dollars require a local match as Congresswoman Kathy Castor pointed out. When Mike Merrill, the County administrator was asked by Overman if the county has match money without the surtax revenues, he responded no.
Overman continued, “Without the surtax, this County will lose and will lose big. After the initial push for aid and relief, the federal and state governments will transition to packages to stimulate the economy. As stated by Congresswoman Castor, “A lack of local transportation matching funds would be devastating to Hillsborough County’s ability to recover from a recession, draw down funds for major transportation and infrastructure projects, boost wages and create jobs.”
Castor added that,"Other Florida counties have a surtax and will win the race for federal and state infrastructure money, as they will have the funding in place for matching grant requirements. On more than one occasion, members of this Board have noted that we lose money for transportation projects that could substantially help our communities because we don’t have a united front."
To her, the April 15 vote was an opportunity to give jobless citizens a fighting chance to get back to work.
“FDOT two years ago launched a workforce training recruitment campaign because the skilled labor needed by contractors is sorely needed,” Castor added. “Our moving forward with transportation projects will add to that need and expand much needed training programs, which would be a win for residents needing jobs, receive skill training and for employers who are in dire need of trades workers.”
How do we move forward? The Florida Supreme Court could vote in support of the All For Transportation initiative. Plan B would be a polished-up new referendum promoted again by a coalition of business and grassroots leaders. In two years our economy will, hopefully, be recovering from the coronavirus collapse and voters will have an eye to the future.
Linda Saul-Sena has devoted her life to public service and advocacy in her hometown of Tampa, Florida. For 20 years, she served as a member of Tampa City Council and has been contributing to Creative Loafing Tampa since 2012. She’s also served on the boards of the Tampa Theatre, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and Community Stepping Stones and more.
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