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Joe Henderson: Hillsborough Commissioners face big All For Transportation decision

County Administrator recommends moving $31 million from transportation to fund public safety

Hillsborough County voters overwhelmingly approved the All For Transportation sales tax increase last November. It put real money into addressing traffic congestion and other related issues.

But now, well, who knows?

Yes, money from the 1-cent tax hike eventually will fund some of the massive road projects All For Transportation proponents promised. But the county’s fiscal year 2020 proposed budget includes an item that could raise the blood pressure of anyone who supported AFT past the boiling point.

On Wednesday, County Commissioners will consider a recommendation by Administrator Mike Merrill. He suggests moving $31 million from transportation for police, fire, and public safety funding.

“We have critical deficits there,” he said.

Merrill’s job also requires that he make these judgments. Commissioners have the final say, though. Four Democrats who are transportation advocates now control the Board. I won’t be surprised if they reject the recommendation.

Commission Chairman Les Miller made it clear how he feels.

“I am not in favor of this proposal,” he said. “People wanted (the sales tax) as an enhancement, not a Lottery-switch.”

And Merrill stressed, “I’m not telling anyone what they should do.”

How did we get here?

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Jump in the Way Back Machine to 2016. That’s when the Board kept a transportation referendum off the ballot. Commissioners instead earmarked $812 million over ten years to pay for various transportation projects.

“It authorized the use of any available source of funding, including a surtax, if enacted,” Merrill said.

The county used property tax money primarily. That drained money from the police, fire, and public safety areas that Merrill referenced.

“It was supposed to be a stopgap,” he said.

And when voters approved the AFT sales tax increase, it became Merrill’s job to provide Commissioners with the option of re-directing property tax money to other needs.

Here’s the conundrum for Commissioners: If they don’t approve the recommendation, they may have to increase property taxes. Miller said he doesn’t believe that will happen, but added, “You never know.”

If they approve the recommendation, though, they risk reminding voters of the shell game state lawmakers used 31 years ago with the Florida Lottery, as Miller referenced.

Backers told voters proceeds would enhance education funding.

The key word: enhance.

Instead, state lawmakers diverted money from the public school budget into various pet projects. They did so without an ounce of shame.

That brings us to the issue at hand today.

Voters approved AFT on the belief it would enhance — that word again — what the county spends to upgrade our woefully inadequate transportation system.

Now, it might not.

A citizen’s oversight committee was a key part of the referendum. It was there to reassure voters there would be no repeat of the lottery debacle.

But Commissioner Stacy White sued to block that part of the plan. A judge agreed that it is up to commissioners to determine how to spend the money.

So, here we are. All For Transportation?

“The County Commission should honor the will of the voters,” AFT Chair Tyler Hudson said.

Some projects could be delayed or canceled if $31 million goes out of the transportation budget. We know all too well what that could do to public trust.

But speaking of public trust, can Commissioners keep putting off critical public safety needs?

Probably not.

“I can’t speak for the other Commissioners,” Miller said. “We will just have to wait and see what happens Wednesday.”

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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