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Hillsborough commissioners will mull options to get a transportation tax back on the ballot

HART bus parked at a bus stop
The Hillsborough County Commission is holding a meeting Thursday at 5 p.m. to discuss ways to keep the measure on the ballot, according to Myers.

Road improvements, better street lighting, and sidewalks would be funded through the 1% sales tax, which was taken off the Nov. 8 ballot following a judge's ruling.

With less than a month to go before the Nov. 8 general election, changes are still being made to the ballot for Hillsborough County voters.

County Circuit Court Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe ruled Monday in favor of a plaintiff's claim that the ballot language for the referendum is misleading.

The 1% sales tax, which was put on the ballot by Hillsborough County commissioners earlier this year, would be used to fund road improvements, better street lighting and sidewalks, and other needs. The tax would last for 30 years.

“It was devastating to hear the news,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers said.

Myers has been a staunch supporter of the tax proposal, along with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, and several other groups.

“We have signals that we need to maintained,” Myers said. “We have potholes. Our roads and bridges, our streets need to be replaced. And so, there's a lot of projects that are ready today that we cannot fund.”

But opponents of the tax say the recent ruling by a circuit court judge was a step in the right direction.

James Davison is a local doctor who has previously worked on transportation boards and task forces in the region. Now, he’s a board member for No Tax for Tracks. Another member of the organization, Karen Jaroch, filed the lawsuit that halted the November referendum.

“The ballot language was a marketing play to get people to vote for the sales tax, and the sales tax never should have been brought before the people anyway,” Davison said.

Davison also said apart from the misleading language on the ballot, it also lacks a financial impact statement, which would show the expected cost to voters.

According to the county charter, “For all County elections, a separate financial impact statement, not exceeding 75 words, including a two-year estimate of the increase or decrease in revenues or costs to the County resulting from approval of all proposed County Charter amendments and all other proposed Countywide referenda unrelated to a County Charter amendment, shall be prepared by the County Budget Director who shall receive input and advice from a committee to be established by Board of County Commissioners' Resolution, and placed on the ballot immediately following the ballot question.”

“The people voted on that in 2012,” Davison said. “And by an overwhelming majority they said they want financial impact statements on all county referenda. They just neglected to include that. And I think they did that for a reason.”

Overall, Davison said the county commission has not done enough with its current revenue streams to fix transportation issues, and he wants to see commissioners re-evaluate specific transportation needs before pushing for a sales tax.

“Our elected officials have not done their job,” Davison said. “We are to punish ourselves by levying a tax against ourselves? Why don't we just replace the commissioners? It's a lot cheaper.”

The organization All For Transportation is a main proponent of the referendum, helping write up the proposal that would be approved by the county commission.

Prior to the judge’s ruling Monday, co-founder Tyler Hudson said he believed the lawsuit wasn’t actually intended to identify misleading language.

“The law hasn't changed,” Hudson said. “The only thing that's changed is the politics. And it's our view that this this lawsuit is really sort of a more of a political tool that's using scarce court resources to try to prevent people from voting for a better transportation future.”

A nearly identical tax was passed by county voters in 2018, with 57% in support of the proposal, but it was later struck down after County Commissioner Stacy White sued, claiming it violated the state constitution.

“If people think we can grin and bear it, and just deal with the transportation system we have, then at least people can make the choice,” Hudson said. “For too long voters have been denied the ability to decide and weigh in on whether they want a better transportation future.”

An official release of the judge’s ruling is expected later this week. The county can still appeal the ruling.

“We have to make sure our citizens understand, the Board of County Commissioners are gonna do everything in its power to keep this on the ballot,” Myers said.

The Hillsborough County Commission is holding a meeting Thursday at 5 p.m. to discuss ways to keep the measure on the ballot, according to Myers.

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.