‘Hot mess’: Hillsborough County still owes its taxpayers $521,183,433

Hillsborough County needs to return a fortune to county taxpayers. The latest problem is figuring out how to do it.

In 2018, Hillsborough voters passed an extra one-cent sales tax to improve roads. In 2021, the state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional because the referendum specified how the money should be spent – when that power belongs to the county commission.

With that ruling, the county found itself sitting on more than half a billion dollars. None of it has been spent because it was wrongly collected, and none it has been returned because the process for refunding it is in dispute.

According to the county clerk’s office, the amount is $521,183,433 to be exact – still parked in an account where it’s accruing less than 1% interest.  All of it needs to be refunded, somehow.

Karen Jaroch, with the group "Fix our Roads First," calls it "hot mess," adding, "this whole tax could have been avoided if it was legally vetted in the first place."

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Jaroch's group opposed the tax and now opposes the county’s proposed method for refunding it.

"Which would be very onerous to citizens of Hillsborough County. In order to do a refund, you would have to show two and a half years of your receipts to a panel of judges," she continued. "You know, the problem that I have with this whole process is you have the defenders of the illegal tax deciding the outcome, deciding the remedy that shouldn't be happening."

But for now, no remedy has actually been decided.  The county may want to go the approach described by Jaroch, but with a lawsuit in play, the court may have the final say.

Commissioner Stacy White, who led the court fight to nix the tax, declined our interview request, but shared his suggestions back in May, saying, "a sales tax holiday is something that would be very easy and equitable...certainly I’m open to the direct check idea. We've talked about COVID stimulus; what better way to offer stimulus to our local residents."

That’s where the Florida Legislature could step in with a local bill to enable White’s idea, which Jaroch supports, telling FOX 13, "the Department of Revenue could work with legislators to come up with a good bill to return the money fairly through a sales tax holiday."

But no lawmakers appear to have sponsored it in the session which starts in January.

We may know more on January 26, when the judge in the legal dispute scheduled a discussion in which we might get a better idea of where this story is going, who will get refunded, and how much they'll get.