A referendum that would add a penny sales tax to fund transportation improvements in Hillsborough County has cleared a mandatory audit conducted by the state Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Hillsborough County posted the results of the audit on their website Thursday, which were required to be completed and made available to the public by the end of the day on Thursday. Under a new state law, audits are required for a schools referendum and are backing up the citizen-led All for Transportation activist group. Analysts from the McConnell & Jones accounting firm spent four days in Tampa, reviewing reports and interviewing more than 10 school managers.
In the audit, OPPAGA gave good scores to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the county “have sufficient policies and procedures in place” to address the requirements in state law and that the ability to “ensure the newly acquired surtax dollars are appropriately spent” on transportation projects.
Additionally, the audit noted that Hillsborough County administrators handled the half-cent Community Investment Tax well and that it’s “not unreasonable” to expect the same results with the transit tax. HART was also singled out for how its administered past grants, with auditors saying the transit authority “is prepared to take reasonable and timely actions to implement new services and projects.”
The report also noted that the department has 78 vacancies, “with limited effort to fill these positions primarily due to lack of funding,” and “due to the volume of vacancies in this department, the team is currently not performing preventative maintenance on a proactive basis, which is leading to increased deferred maintenance.”
If successful in November, the OPPAGA audit would only be the first of many as the referendum would require an independent audit each year and put in place an independent oversight committee to make sure funds are spent transparently and appropriately.
The sales tax referendum made the ballot in late July by taking advantage of the seldom-used citizen’s charter amendment process.
The initiative has been heavily supported by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, businessman and philanthropist Frank Morsani and Charles Sykes of Sykes Enterprises, each of whom pitched in $150,000 to the political committee backing the referendum, All for Transportation, in order to jump-start the eleventh-hour petition drive.
The petition drive also required grassroots support from numerous volunteers to gather the required 49,000 petition signatures, which were delivered to the to the Supervisor of Elections office just ahead of the deadline.
Recent weeks have also seen business groups including the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Downtown Partnership endorse the referendum. All for Transportation has also started ramping up its efforts to get the word out to voters by opening up a Tampa office and educating volunteers on how they can help out.
If passed, the penny-per-dollar sales tax would be in effect for 30 years starting in 2019. It’s estimated that would bring in $280 million per year to fund transportation initiatives in the county.
The money raised by the sales tax would be split between HART, which would get 45 percent of the funds, and local governments in the county, which would divvy up the other 55 percent for road maintenance and projects tackling traffic congestion.