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County won't divert money

BY CAITLIN JOHNSTON

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA - In the weeks before Election Day, some feared that voter approval of the transportation sales tax would result in Hillsborough County officials breaking a promise: Now that the county has a new pot of money to work with, those critics argued, what's to stop county commissioners from reneging on last year's commitment to spend $812 million on roads over the next decade?

Hillsborough officials, however, have vowed that those funds aren't going anywhere.

'The $800 million is a done deal,' County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

He said Hillsborough County will go forward with the $812 million road plan, that the money will be spent in addition to the $9 million the All for Transportation referendum is projected to raise over the next three decades.

A bloc of county commissioners agreed, doubling down on the 2017 plan to pay for $276 million in road and bridge main- tenance, $127 million in safety projects and $346 million over 10 years to relieve congestion.

The plan was drawn up in the wake of the failure of the last proposed transportation sales tax, Go Hillsborough. In 2016, the commission refused to put that half-cent sales tax plan on the ballot. Despite lack of support for a tax, commission- ers agreed something had to be done about the county's roads. That led to the $812 million plan.

'I think the worst thing the county commission could do at this point is turn its back on roads funding and abandon that policy initiative,' commissioner Stacy White said. 'I will fight tooth and nail to assure that that

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funding remains in place.' But opponents of the referendum fear commissioners could still change their minds and divert that $812 million to other purposes - including a new Ybor City baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

That specific claim circulated on social media and on a campaign flier paid for by No Tax for Tracks, a political committee that opposes spending tax money on transit. The mailer from the opposition group warned voters the commission would use the tax to shift existing county money 'to finance another billionaire's stadium.' Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, a leader with No Tax for Tracks, pointed to the board's decision two days after the Nov. 6 election to cancel its public-private partnership for a ferry connecting MacDill Air Force Base and South County as an example of how the new tax is already changing things.

The commission reasoned that, with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority in line to get an extra $124 million per year from the sales tax, it makes more sense for the county's bus agency to pick up the tab for the ferry.

'What would keep them from doing the same thing (with the $812 million)?' Calvert asked. 'All that money that was allocated can go to something else.' Commissioner-elect Kimberly Overman said she plans on meeting with county attorneys and challenging the outgoing-commission's decision to back out of the ferry plan. The passage of the tax shouldn't change the county's existing plans, she said, whether to the MacDill Ferry or the county's 10-year road investment.

'We already made that commitment,' Overman said of the roads plan. 'We should make sure that happens.' All For Transportation's Brian Willis, who leads the political committee that campaigned for the tax, said it was always intended to be an additional resource, not the sole resource. The 57 percent of voters - 282,641, to be exact - who approved the sales tax chose to spend more transportation, he said, not less.

The new tax is projected to generate $280 million in its first year and $9 billion over 30 years. Just over half of that is dedicated to road and safety projects, while the other 45 percent will go toward transit, including buses, the streetcar and a potential new transit system such as bus rapid transit or even light rail.

Merrill said it would be possible to divert the county's promised road money to other projects, but it would require a vote from the commission to rescind or amend the 2017 decision.

That seems unlikely under the current commission, which has a Democratic majority for the first time since 2004. Several members campaigned on a promise to spend more on transportation.

T he Tampa Bay Times asked all seven commissioners whether they would approve reallocating the $812 million to other areas of the budget now that the sales tax has passed.

Three commissioners - Les Miller, Overman and White said the tax money should be spent in addition to the county's money, not instead of. 'We have more transportation needs than we can shake a stick at,' commissioner and transit board member Les Miller said.

Two commissioners - Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Commissioner Pat Kemp voted against the 2017 plan because it was focused only on road work. While she supports spending more on transportation, she still questions whether the county budget can afford the $812 million plan.

'This is a big amount of money with very little planning, as far as I can see,' Kemp said of the tax. 'But I think the $812 million is a fantasy that never existed. The money was not there to do all of these projects.' Commissioner-elect Mariella Smith echoed that concern, that the $812 million plan is unaffordable. Still, she said the county must find a way to pay for road widening and other projects not covered by the tax.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst

Hillsborough voters approved the 1 percent tax on Nov. 6 to fund transportation projects.

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