Hillsborough Commissioners will discuss proposed transportation surtax to meet county's growing needs

Hillsborough Commissioners took a step forward in their attempt to get the county's growing transportation needs back on track Wednesday. 

With a 5-2 vote, commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing on April 20 to discuss a proposed one-cent Transportation System Sales Surtax. If approved, the referendum could be put to voters on November's ballot. 

Like the transportation sales tax Hillsborough voters approved in 2018, the new proposal would help fund projects aimed at building better roads and sidewalks, improving safety, expanding public transportation and easing the county's growing congestion issues. 

"It’s very clear that our residents want us to work on our roads they want us to make them more safe," said Commission Chair Kimberly Overman. "We’ve had to sit on our transportation plans and our funding for almost four years now and that’s so unfortunate." 

Hillsborough is also sitting on more than half a billion dollars collected from the transportation sales tax that was approved by 57% of voters in November 2018. Last year, Florida's Supreme Court ruled the tax unconstitutional, because the referendum did not give the county commission full authority over funds raised. 

READ: Tampa judge denies proposal to issue refunds for Hillsborough County transportation tax

Overman said the new referendum won't run into those same problems. 

"It’s very much in style with what was passed in 2018, without the legal issues," said Overman. 

It could, however, run into a major problem gaining enough support in a very different economic climate. 

"I’ve come to realize that while the plan is good, the timing is off," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who supported past sales tax referendums. "The circumstances today are far different. This is not 2016 or 2018. To the contrary. To say folks are struggling today is to put it mildly." 

Commissioner Stacy White, who also opposed moving forward with the proposal, criticized the now year-long debate over what to do with the $521 million raised by the tax his own lawsuit helped strike down and freeze. 

"I just want to remind everyone that we still have the issue of over $500 million out there from the unlawful referendum that has yet to be returned to the people," said White. "If we can't work together on this board, and we're going to fight then it might as well be a fight that's worth it." 

Ultimately the state legislature, not the Hillsborough Commission, has the final say in how and when the half billion dollars is spent. 

"I do believe we should try to work together to offer to the legislature a remedy to this issue," said Overman. "I don't look for a fight. I look for an opportunity to find a solution." 

While the legislature sorts out how to spend the money collected by the 2018 referendum, Overman said she's hopeful voters in 2022 will see the value in continuing to fund Hillsborough's expanding transportation needs.

"That investment will actually pay great dividends to the people who live here and the businesses that thrive here," said Overman. "We have the opportunity to create economic mobility by investing this way and supporting and helping family budgets by investing in the infrastructure they need to be able to get around and function in Hillsborough County."