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Airbnb reaches agreement with Hillsborough County over tourist taxes

Airbnb has reached an agreement Wednesday with the Hillsborough County Tax Collector Office, in a deal that could immediately add thousands of dollars in county revenue.

Home hosts in Hillsborough will begin paying bed taxes for overnight guests, which is estimated at about one-quarter million dollars a year.

Airbnb will collect and remit taxes from 838 property owners countywide who rent out bedrooms, apartments and even entire houses as lodging for visitors, Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden said in a statement announcing the deal.

“As an elected official tasked with the collection of tax revenue for Hillsborough County,” Belden said, “it’s my job to ensure the best possible outcome for taxpayers and the county.”

Property owners offer short-term rentals through Airbnb, an international company that uses a mobile app to connect tourists and other visitors with homes for bed-and-breakfasts or private residences. The service has become part of the fast-growing peer-to-peer lodging industry.

Currently, only those savvy property owners with the will to collect and remit tourist taxes have done so.

The Hillsborough agreement brings further integrity to Airbnb’s rapidly-growing business in Florida, which has been sharply criticized by some for avoiding regulation and taxes, as well as placing lodging facilities in neighborhoods, sometimes inappropriately.

Nevertheless, the company’s positive efforts have attracted strong political backing.

And the Hillsborough deal brought some praise from critics.

“We applaud the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s office for holding Airbnb’s feet to the fire and finalizing a deal with them that makes them not only provide real data, but allows them to audit their website and collect for back taxes,” Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for AirbnbWATCH Florida, said in a statement. “We believe County Tax Collectors, like Mr. Belden, are right to be skeptical about the data secrecy that Airbnb has been known for. Counties shouldn’t take a bad deal that potentially undermines neighborhoods while picking winners and losers in the tourism industry just to gain some quick revenue.”

Gov. Rick Scott expressed support for the operation Tuesday, joined Wednesday by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

In a statement from Buckhorn’s office, the mayor calls the agreement with Airbnb to collect local tourist taxes “transparent and accountable.”

Airbnb will report information on accounts to the county for auditing purposes, and ensure they collect the appropriate taxes.

As part of the agreement, the Tax Collector’s office and Airbnb reached a consensus on all points: public records exemptions, waiver of “look-back” on back taxes, and the process for auditing host accounts.

“I am very pleased to announce that Airbnb acquiesced to all the terms; I am a firm believer that if you cannot do the right thing, then you just should not do it at all.”

The agreement was executed Tuesday evening, becoming effective February 1, 2017.

“This agreement is yet another way to allow people traveling to the City of Tampa more options to authentically experience our incredibly unique culture and neighborhoods,” Buckhorn said in the release. “I’m proud of this collaboration with Airbnb to enhance Tampa’s status as a truly world class city and am excited to work with my Hillsborough County counterparts to put this new tax revenue stream to good use.”

Belden hopes other jurisdictions in the state of Florida will adopt the agreement.

In fact, Airbnb announced Tuesday similar agreements with 31 Florida counties, including Pinellas, Orange, and Osceola, and is seeking such deals with others.

“Airbnb and our host community are passionate about cultivating Hillsborough County’s growing tourism industry,” said Tom Martinelli, Airbnb Florida policy director. “We’re particularly excited that this brand-new tourist tax revenue will infuse new funding for Visit Tampa Bay to continue its mission of marketing Hillsborough to the rest of the world. We are committed to serving as steadfast partners to Mayor Buckhorn, Tax Collector Belden and the rest of this remarkable community.”

If the 2016 number of guest arrivals and host income were to remain consistent in Hillsborough, Airbnb projects that, through the new agreement, it would collect and remit to the county about $250,000 in annual tax revenue.

Airbnb’s presence in Florida has more than doubled over each of the past two years. Hillsborough County saw a similar increase — 198 percent in 2016 — according to a statewide report Tuesday from Airbnb Florida.

In 2016, Hillsborough County hosts earned $5.1 million in supplemental income. Tampa hosts accounted for $4.53 million, with hosts in the suburbs and other Hillsborough communities making approximately $580,000.

Tampa’s 600 Airbnb hosts welcomed about 32,000 guests in 2016. That represents 198 percent year over year growth in guest arrivals, one of the highest growth rates of any major American city and far outpacing the Florida statewide rate of 114 percent year-over-year increase in visitor arrivals.

Airdna, a consulting firm doing data analysis on Airbnb, reported Wednesday the company now claims 838 hosts in Tampa.

The tourist development tax is used for Hillsborough County to promote the region as a tourism and convention destination, as well as helping support tourism and sports facilities.

In fiscal year 2016, Hillsborough County collected $ 29.6 million in bed taxes.

Station House announces major renovation, rooftop terrace for St. Pete location

A popular St. Petersburg restaurant and meeting space is planning ambitious changes to its downtown location in the new year.

Station House announced Tuesday a series of extensive revitalizations to its mixed-use structure for 2017. Among the upgrades include the addition of a rooftop garden terrace, and what is being described as a “multi-experience restaurant concept.”

Station House, a five-story, mixed-use building of nearly 32,000 square feet, is located at 260 1st Ave. S in St. Petersburg,

Although exact details have not yet been made public, the design includes a new garden terrace with a shaded pergola trellis system, incorporating green space, foliage, and vines to invoke a New York City-style rooftop for intimate parties and dining.

Entry to the restaurant will move to the front of the building off 1st Ave. South, which will improve traffic flow and allow a greater street-level presence. Plans also include a mural, as well as other features to the entry, streetscape, and landscaping.

“It’s again time for Station House to recruit talented designers and partners from the best cities all over the world and introduce them to St Pete,” says Station House proprietor Steve Gianfilippo. “That’s my purpose, to continue to raise the bar in the way so many of us are doing in St. Pete at all levels, but as always with a few tricks up our sleeves.”

Gianfilippo promises the redesign will elevate Station House as both an entertainment and culinary venue, and is expected to attract new talent for improved diversity in downtown St. Petersburg.

As a meeting and business place, Station House will also offer mentoring and a series of workshops in 2017, as well as a Virtual Reality Gaming facility in the co-work space — a concept which Gianfilippo says is “much like those of Silicon Valley.”

Also, there will be a new men’s locker room installed with shower, and a complete makeover of the Green Richman Arcade, currently branded as the Station House Arcade.

Restaurant renovations are slated to start the first week in January, and Station House will continue to provide catering and event hosting during construction.

Completion of the project is planned for Spring or Summer 2017.

Updates on the remodel, workspace, memberships and office suites are at www.stationhousestpete.com.

Kathy Castor co-signs letter to Donald Trump calling on him to repeal the Hyde Amendment

Tampa area Representative Kathy Castor is one of more than 100 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who have co-signed a letter to President-elect Donald Trump, calling on him to support the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. That’s the 1976 law named after former Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde which prevents federal funding for abortion.

“Every person should be treated with dignity, compassion and respect – and that includes upholding a woman’s right to make her own decisions about whether to end a pregnancy,” says the letter, written by Berkeley Representative Barbara Lee. “We urge you to begin your presidency with a clear and bold statement that abortion coverage bans have no place in our public policy by eliminating all such restrictions from your FY2018 Budget request.”

Other Florida Democrats on the letter include Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lois Frankel and Alcee Hastings.

The Hyde Amendment enjoys popular support from a strong majority of Americans. A Marist poll published in July found that 62 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, including 63 percent of women, 45 percent of those who say they are “pro-choice,” and 44 percent of Democrats.

At town hall in Ybor City, Darryl Rouson says climate is good for “true” criminal justice reform

At a town-hall meeting in Tampa’s Ybor City, newly-elected Senate District 19 Democrat Darryl Rouson said he feels that, finally, a serious attempt at criminal justice reform is going to take place in the Florida Legislature in 2017.

“It’s my intention to change the Black Caucus this year so that all 28 members … really stand up and do something,” he said when queried by one new constituent, who told him that the only way to stop gun violence was to provide more job opportunities for young men.

“I believe the climate is good this year for true criminal justice reform,” Rouson continued. “And we’re going to work hard.”

The St. Petersburg Democrat added that it was “unfair” for the community to criticize lawmakers like himself for not doing enough regarding urban violence, “as if we’re not sensitive to this issue.”

“These are our families. These are our friends. These are church members who are going through this issue,” he said.

Rouson met with approximately 120 of his new constituents in Tampa, where he was joined by House District 61 Democrat Sean Shaw in a joint meeting hosted by both local legislators. While Shaw represents much of Tampa and other parts of Hillsborough County, Rouson’s district encompasses that area and parts of  downtown and south St. Pete as well, making him the first lawmaker in this hybrid district to come from the Pinellas side in more than two decades. He narrowly defeated former HD 61 Representative Ed Narain by just 75 votes last month to take the seat which has previously been held in the past eight years by Arthenia Joyner.

One audience member questioned how criminal justice reform should move forward with the heavily GOP based Legislature?

“Because certain people are beginning in this phrase ‘smart justice,’ certain people are looking at the economic cost of incarceration and felonization of people to society and they haven’t looked at it like this before,” Rouson explained.

Senate President Joe Negron and St. Petersburg’s Jeff Brandes have spoken about tackling criminal justice reform in the coming year. But whether that happens or not remains to be seen. In the U.S. Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker introduced the REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) in 2014. The bill is focused on helping people who committed non-violent crimes better integrate into the community and find gain full employment to reduce the chance they will commit offenses in the future.

More than two years later, it has not come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The two lawmakers also heard plenty of questions and concerns about issues like restoring ex-felons rights, the Tampa Bay Express project, affordable housing and education.

On the restoration of voting right for ex-felons, Shaw said he intends to prepare a bill that that will deal with that issue “on the front end.”

“I want to limit the categories of people who get their rights taken away up front,” he said.

Lynn Gray, a new Hillsborough County School board member, said she was concerned that the state was going to get “more involved” in school vouchers.

“I support a fully funded high quality public education for every child that fits their need,” Rouson immediately began before adding, “But one size does not fit all.”

He went on to say that parents deserve a choice, referring to how one of his boys who was born with cognitive deficits is struggling with IEP’s (Individualized Education Program) in public schools, because there’s no type of school that handles such kids in his school district.

“I believe that parents deserve choice, but we must require accountability, strict standards, we must lessen the testing that’s going on in public schools, while requiring certain things of our private charters and public charters,” Rouson said. “And there are there are 90,000 kids supported by Step Up and tax credit scholarships.”

Shaw said that the issue of school choice was one of the items that the two lawmakers disagreed on. “Unfortunately, it’s zero sum game to a certain extent, so if we want to fully fund public eduction, we have to do it before we start doing other things,” he said, adding, “I want choices, but as a starting point, we have to fully and adequately fund public education. And we don’t adequately fund public education.”

Rouson, a noted anti-drug hawk, joked that no other senate district was in more support of the medical marijuana constitutional amendment that his SD 19. “So I’m taking a look at this,” he deadpanned.

Both men talked about how reducing gun violence, but admitted they didn’t have all the answers. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re here,” said Shaw. “We need your ideas too.”

Regarding Florida DOT Secretary Jim Boxold comment last week said there was time for a “reset” regarding the troubled Tampa Bay Express project, Shaw said,”I’m going to meet with the secretary and ask what the reset means. Regarding the TBX project itself, Shaw remains resolutely opposed to it.

“I think it’s bad. My district contains the homes that will be torn down, it contains the land that has already been sold. I’m absolutely against it.”

A number of other elected officials were in the room, including newly elected Hillsborough County School board member Tamara Shamburger and Lynn Gray, Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick and District 70 Representative Wengay Newton, who was put to work passing the microphone to members in the audience who asked questions.

Nick DiCeglie

Nick DiCeglie: “I’m casting my vote for Donald Trump”

Just in case there was any doubt, Electoral College member Nick DiCeglie says yes, he’s still voting for President-elect Donald Trump.

The Pinellas County Republican Party Chairman spoke with reporters Sunday night before Monday’s Electoral College meeting in the Capitol.

He’s also sure none of his colleagues will be defecting, either.

“The state party selects all the electors and they do that very carefully,” DiCeglie said. “I have 100 percent confidence that Donald Trump will get 29 electoral votes tomorrow,” the number of Florida’s GOP electors.

Other GOP electors include state Rep. Larry Ahern, lobbyist Brian Ballard, state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, state Rep. and Republican Party of Florida chair Blaise Ingoglia, Senate President Joe Negron and state Rep. Carlos Trujillo.

That’s not to say DiCeglie hasn’t received “thousands of letters, thousands of emails” asking him to reconsider. He showed reporters a picture of his home postbox filled with mail on Thursday.

“It’s ‘vote for Hillary (Clinton), she won the popular vote,’ it’s “please don’t vote for Trump, he’s dangerous for the country’ … that’s the feedback I’ve been getting,” he said. “Folks want to voice their opinions; I’m totally OK with that.”

He even got a request to vote for a “unity ticket” of Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president and Democratic Virginia U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine for vice president. Kasich was a GOP presidential candidate; Kaine was Clinton’s running mate.

But, DiCeglie added, “I take (seriously) the responsibility of representing the will of the voters here in the state of Florida, and Donald Trump won the state by over 100,000 votes” – almost 113,000 votes to be exact.

The Long Island native has been active with the Pinellas Republican Party since 2009, and its chair since 2014. He’s the co-owner of Solar Sanitation, a solid waste collection company serving Pinellas residents since 1980.

The Electoral College meets at 2 p.m. in the Senate chamber. Depending on reports, anywhere from 200 to 1,000 protesters are expected to converge on Tallahassee to voice their displeasure with Trump’s election.

Though Trump won only 62,958,211 votes to Clinton’s 65,818,318 votes, he captured 306 electoral votes, more than the 270 to take the White House. Clinton has 232 electoral votes.

“Most of these folks, I would assume, are Democrats,” DiCeglie said of those urging him to flip his electoral vote.

“I do think this is part of an organized effort to undermine Donald Trump’s victory. This is something that is not going to go away … Republicans should get used to that.”

Investigation launched after Tampa infant dies in foster care

Florida detectives have launched a criminal investigation into the death of a 17-month-old boy in foster care who was about to be placed with adoptive parents.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday that Aedyn Agminalis died last Sunday after being taken off life support. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has opened a criminal investigation. The boy suffered from bleeding on the brain, cardiac arrest and acute respiratory failure. The state Department of Children and Families is launching its own inquiry.

“The loss of this child is absolutely devastating,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told the newspaper in an email.

The boy was living in a foster home licensed by A Door of Hope, a subcontractor for Eckerd Kids, a non-profit contracted by the county. Details about the foster home have not been released.

Aedyn’s birth parents had signed adoption papers last month. He was schedule to be placed with Colleen Kochanek and Stephanie Norris, a 10-year married couple in North Carolina. A paperwork delay and the holidays had pushed the final court hearing until next month.

Kochanek, an attorney, and Norris, a civil engineer, adopted a 4-year-old girl at birth. To speed up Aedyn’s adoption, they had paid to have an FBI report expedited but paperwork proving they are not listed on a child abuse registry didn’t arrive until Dec. 5, three days before Aedyn was hospitalized.

“This is so soul-crushing to us,” Kochanek told the paper. “He could have been in our care.”

Artha Healton, the boy’s birth mother, told the paper that she and her husband, Brynn Agminalis, had decided to put Aedyn up for adoption after DCF removed him from their home in August after a tip was called into a child abuse hotline. The investigator was concerned about his nutrition and found feces on the floor. Healton said the boy didn’t like to wear his diaper and she had planned to steam-clean the carpet that night.

The couple, both freelance artists, decided they weren’t ready to be parents and agreed to put Aedyn up for adoption.

“We were struggling and stressed so badly that it was affecting our health,” she told the paper.

She said the hospital called her early Dec. 8 and she and her husband rushed to the baby’s side. She said the foster mother, whom she doesn’t know, was also there.

“She didn’t speak to me or hold eye contact,” Healton said.

By the next day, doctors told her that Aedyn was brain dead.

“I was unable to hold him because he was hooked up to the life support,” she said. “I was able to hold his hand and touch him and tell him goodbye even though he couldn’t hear me.”

In nine Pinellas cities, some are re-elected without opposition, others face the voters next year

Officials in 15 Pinellas cities are scheduled for a date with the ballot box in next March’s municipal elections.

But, with qualifying closed in nine of those, some elected can relax because they have no opposition and are considered re-elected. Others weren’t so lucky. They’ll be facing the voters March 14.

Here’s where the score card stands as of Friday.

GULFPORT

Two seats on the five-member council are up for grabs. In Ward 2, incumbent Christine Anne Brown is facing challenger Linda Bailey. In Ward 4, incumbent Michael Fridovich is facing challenges from Richard Fried and Bobby L. Reynolds.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH

Two commission seats are open on the five-member commission. Incumbents Phil Hanna and Terry Hamilton-Wollin, the current vice mayor, are both running. Philip M. Wrobel and Hope Wyant are also in the race. The top two vote-getters will take office.

INDIAN SHORES

Indian Shores has a five-member council with two openings. Incumbents Michael Petruccelli, who ran for the Pinellas County School Board in August, and Patrick Soranno, the current vice mayor, are running. Michael Hackerson is also in the race. The top two will be elected.

NORTH REDINGTON BEACH

Mayor Bill Queen was re-elected Friday without opposition. Commissioner Gary Curtis, who holds Seat 2, was also re-elected with no opposition. There’s a horse race for Seat 1 with incumbent Richard Bennett facing Jeff Busch.

REDINGTON BEACH

No officials from this beach community will go before the voters on March 14. Mayor Nick Simons and Commissioner Fred Steiermann, the current vice mayor, were re-elected without opposition. Also elected was Tim Kornijschuk, who was also unopposed. Kornijschuk will take the seat currently held by Mark Deighton, who did not run for re-election.

REDINGTON SHORES

Residents here will have two new faces on the five-member commission. Neither John Branch nor Lee Holmes ran for re-election.

One of those new faces belongs to Patrick Drumm, who ran for Holmes’ District 4 seat. Drumm won without opposition.

The story is different for the District 2 seat that Branch held. Jeffery Neal will face Jason Schrimsher on March 14.

SOUTH PASADENA

Neither Bruce Howry nor Arthur Penny are running for reelection in South Pasadena. Four candidates have come out to try to replace them: Dan CalabriaGigi EspositoDavid Magenheimer and Cathy Wolff. Voters will have a choice of two.

ST. PETE BEACH

Commissioners Domonick “Rick” Falkenstein, District 2, and Melinda Pletcher, District 4, were re-elected without opposition.

But voters will have three candidates to choose from in the mayor’s race: incumbent Deborah Schechner and challengers John-Michael Fleig and Alan Johnson.

TARPON SPRINGS

Rea Seiber was re-elected without opposition to Seat 2 on the five-member commission. Three are running for Seat 1: Frank DiDonatoJacob Karr and Tim Keffalas. There is no incumbent in the race. Townsend Tarapani has termed out.

Five other Pinellas municipalities have March 14 elections: Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Shore, Kenneth City, Madeira Beach, Safety Harbor and Treasure Island. All have different dates and deadlines for qualifying.

However, some incumbents and candidates have already thrown their hats into the ring.

In Madeira Beach, Mayor Travis Palladeno says he’s running for re-election.

And things are heating up in Safety Harbor where former Mayor Joe Ayoub is running against current commission member Janet Hooper for mayor. In the race for Seat 4 on the commission, incumbent Carlos Diaz has opposition from Cameron Boozarjomehri.

Hillsborough County PTC may be on way out after local delegation approves bill to kill it

The troubled Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission received a terminal diagnosis Friday after members of the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation voted unanimously for a local bill that would eliminate the agency on December 31, 2017.

After that, the County Commission would pick up its regulatory duties.

“The public has lost complete faith in the ability of this agency to regulate credibly, equitably and efficiently,” said bill sponsor James Grant said before the entire delegation vote in support of his bill.

The proposal was similar to a previous bill Grant brought to the local delegation in 2013 that sought to put a stake through the heart of the agency, but with a significant difference.

The local bill approved on Friday gives the county and the PTC a full year to contend with the transition.

“It’s not about moving fast. We want to make sure we avoid any unintended consequences,” Grant said. That was in notable contrast to the 2013 version, which would have killed the agency immediately, making it a bridge too far for other legislators to support, even with noted PTC critics like Dana Young

“I think the plan is to subcontract the regulation out to Uber, isn’t it?” asked Brandon Senator Tom Lee, eliciting the largest round of laughter of the morning.

Although meant for humorous effect, there’s no question that the addition of Uber and Lyft into the county ultimately was the beginning of the end for the PTC, which was already burdened with a toxic reputation well before the emergence of ride-sharing in Hillsborough County.

Among the previous lowlights that had saddled the PTC came in 2010, when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

Those lawmakers became incredibly irritated with the PTC and its (now former) chairman Victor Crist over the past few years, as Uber and Lyft refused to comply with PTC regulations. That led to PTC agents citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

At Friday’s meeting, County Commission Chairman Stacy White said, “the county stands prepared to take over regulation of this industry and create a meaningful regulatory framework.”

“I think that those types of things would be able to be implemented by the county with relative ease,” White said. “We do stand prepared to create a lean, regulatory framework.”

The PTC has been funded by fees paid by the taxicab and limousine companies, not directly by taxpayers. Plant City Republican Representative Dan Raulerson asked White if the county would continue to fund their regulatory efforts in the same fashion.

“We certainly do have the ability to charge various permitting fees to offset the costs of the regulatory process,” White said.

“It seems like a good move in broadening out transportation options,” added recently elected Commissioner Pat Kemp.  

“I support it, and I realize that there are 66 other counties in the state of Florida that have figured out how to do this,” said Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert. “Let’s get it done.”

Deb Tamargo battles Jonny Torres for future control of Hillsborough County Republican Party

November 8 was a pretty great night for Florida Republicans.

For the first time since 2004, the Sunshine State went red in the presidential race; Marco Rubio easily won re-election in his race for the U.S. Senate. And despite the redistricting of every state Senate seat, the GOP lost no seats in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

One not so bright place for the GOP was in Hillsborough County, where Hillary Clinton won decisively against Donald Trump, putting a dent into the county’s reputation as a reliable bellwether for the presidential race.

Now Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee Chair Deb Tamargo is being challenged in her bid for another two-year term by her second vice chair, Jonny Torres. The two engaged in an hourlong debate Wednesday night at La Teresita Restaurant, sponsored by the Hispanic Republican Club of Hillsborough County.

It began amicably enough, with Tamargo confessing that while the party could have apparently fared better in the election, it’s never been in better shape when it comes to issues like transparency and accountability. Torres agreed with her that party members have a stronger voice than under previous party chairs. But that would be the last time the two agreed on virtually anything the rest of the evening.

“The reason I’m running is there are candidates who were unsuccessful and elected officials who really felt that they were on their own,” Torres said flatly. “They weren’t getting the kind of support financially or with volunteer efforts.”

“I have to disagree with Jonny that we did not provide candidate support because we provided more candidate support than in previous years,” Tamargo replied. And she challenged Torres to name names of unhappy Republican candidates.

Torres responded that he has been endorsed in the race by Hillsborough Republican state House members Ross Spano, Dan Raulerson and Jamie Grant and said there were more“Out of respect to Chairwoman Tamargo, not everyone is willing to step forward,” he said. “What I keep hearing from the campaigns and the consultants time and time again is that they saw little to no members from the REC supporting their efforts.”

Tamargo strongly disagreed, saying that she knew that virtually everyone in the room had worked on the campaigns of at least one of the several Republicans who were on the ballot last month. She boasted of having the ability to fund first-time candidates for the first time, as well as providing slate cards, messaging and campaign “walkers” who went door to door to advocate for Republicans.

There are approximately 39,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Hillsborough County today. Some of that is attributable to the growing Latino population in the county, a demographic that both candidates agreed needs more attention from the Republican Party. But that led to another dispute about how much of that outreach has already occurred.

Tamargo said that the Hillsborough County REC for the first time had purchased airtime on urban radio and Spanish-language radio, and made those spots available for all candidates. “Some made themselves available, some did not,” she added.

Torres, who worked on Hispanic outreach in the Tampa Bay area for the Republican National Committee in 2015, said the most important thing was for the party to simply show up at events designed around the Hispanic community.

Approximately 50 people gathered to watch the debate, with the crowd occasionally making remarks indicating their support for a specific candidate.

During the Q&A session, the two candidates were asked how much time they would have available to chair the committee each week (the position is a voluntary one).

“I dedicated more than 40 hours a week to the mission,” said Tamargo. “I’m a workaholic. I can’t balance very well.”

With a full-top job and a family, Torres said he couldn’t specify exactly how much time he’d have available. He said he looked up to other GOP chairs like Blaise Ingoglia (the chair of the Republican Party of Florida), Joe Gruters or Nick DiCeglie, but then attempted to put the focus back on Tamargo. “No one can take away the hours, but what do we have to show for it? My philosophy is that we work smarter, not harder.”

The two also voter registration numbers, with Torres saying that Tamargo waited too to begin an all-out effort this year. Tamargo said she actively began those efforts a year-and-a-half ago. Torres says he would hire a political director to concentrate on those efforts year round.

Members of the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee will decide between Tamargo and Torres on December 20.

TBX critics not surprised by FDOT Secretary’s stance on the project

Following Florida Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Boxold’s comments this week that it’s time for a “reset” on the controversial Tampa Bay Express toll lanes project, an opposition group says it’s time to remove the project from Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization’s five year plan.

“We are not surprised that FDOT has realized how tarnished and damaged the TBX brand is- the project is too costly and does not solve congestion or meet transportation needs,” says Michelle Cookson, a spokesperson for Sunshine Citizens, the citizen activist group formed to oppose the Tampa Bay Express project in 2005.

Cookson was reacting specifically to Boxold’s statements to the Florida Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday, where he said, “We have had some challenges with getting that project to a point where the local communities that are affected are pleased with where it is, and so we have the benefit of some time before we’re ready to move forward with that project,” Boxhold told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday.“We probably have 2-3 years before that project is what we call ‘production ready,’ ready to turn dirt,” he added. “And so we’re going to sort of hit the reset button, bring in additional staff or different staff to manage that project, and work more intensively with the local communities.”

The comments were the first by the FDOT in months regarding the project, which last came before the public in June, when the Hillsborough MPO board approved including the project in the agency’s five-year transportation improvement plan.

The TBX project is the biggest public works project in the history of the Tampa Bay area. The plan would ultimately remake I-275, I-4 and I-75, and bring new toll lanes from Pasco County south to Manatee County and from Pinellas County east to Polk County.

Critics contend that the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority concentrated area of Tampa, who had little input on what was happening in their neighborhood, something that Boxold said on Tuesday he is well aware of.

Other critics say that the plan is foolhardy and won’t decrease traffic congestion.

However, some of Tampa’s biggest political players, such as Mayor Bob Buckhorn, state Senator Dana Young and much of the business establishment is solidly behind the plan.

Here is the statement in full from Sunshine Citizens:

Upon reading Florida Politics’ coverage of FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold’s comments to a Florida Senate committee, “FDOT Secretary says it’s time to hit reset button on TBX project,” we are not surprised that FDOT has realized how tarnished and damaged the TBX brand is- the project is too costly and does not solve congestion or meet transportation needs.

Sunshine Citizens’ emphasis in our long-term plan has always been on what comprehensive transportation could this region have for $6 billion – instead of $2 per mile tolls on the highways?

The only action FDOT can take to satisfy community concerns about TBX is to remove TBX from the 5-year work plan and commit to funding a Citizen-led regional transportation outreach effort that runs in conjunction with the premium transit study.

It is imperative that FDOT commit to funding Citizen-led participation in shaping a regional transportation plan that serves ALL of the community – because this is $6-9 billion of our taxpayer money they are talking about using. This outreach must be led by the citizens and include large, diverse groups of people from all over the county, with their input first, not a pre- conceived outcome shaping the dialogue.

We have always questioned the rush to fund this project which has been shown to be so tremendously flawed. Our current actions include petitioning FDOT to remove TBX from the 5- year work plan and continued demands of the Hillsborough MPO to remove TBX from the TIP.

In conjunction with our coalition partners, our next major actions include attendance at the Hillsborough Legislative Delegation Meeting*, Friday, December 16, and then action plans in Tallahassee in 2017.
*Event information at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/586138868243288/

Sunshine Citizens remain committed to public education, grassroots activism and growing our coalition of business and community organizations that favor investment in infrastructure, to include multimodal comprehensive transportation, that generates greater return on investment without eviscerating communities.

It’s time to move Beyond TBX and position this region for economic growth and prosperity while meeting the community’s transportation needs.

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