When Hillsborough voters step into the voting booth in November, they will be asked whether the county should implement a 1% sales tax for 30 years to fund transportation needs.
But how, when and if Hillsborough County’s rutted roads, dangerous intersections and skeletal bus routes will be improved is once again embroiled in a legal challenge.
Last month, Karen Jaroch – a 58-year-old Northdale resident, licensed professional engineer and among the most prolific anti-rail organizers the county has ever seen – has filed a lawsuit challenging the wording of the transport surcharge referendum ballot due to be presented to voters in Hillsborough on November 8.
Supporters of the surcharge say the referendum offers Hillsborough voters a solution to the county’s multi-billion dollar backlog in highway and transit projects. Opponents say it’s a cash grab, especially misguided in a time of high inflation.
Both agree that the stakes are high. Here is an introduction to the proposed surcharge and the recent lawsuit.
What does transport tax mean for your wallet?
The proposal raises Hillsborough County sales tax from 7.5% to 8.5% and is expected to raise $342 million in its first full year of collection. If the ballot passes, it will begin on January 1, 2023.
As with any sales tax, the more you spend, the more you will pay. Much like the current county sales tax, you won’t be taxed on essential purchases like groceries and prescription drugs.
A Hillsborough County family with an average income would pay about $142 extra in taxes per year, according to estimates from the Transportation Planning Organization using IRS data. A single head of household with an income of $50,000 to $60,000 would pay around $95 per year.
what are you paying for?
If voters approve the tax increase, the money generated will go into a dedicated trust fund managed by the county clerk of the circuit court and divided in three ways:
- General Purpose Portion: 54.5% of the proceeds would be split between Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and unincorporated Hillsborough County, based on relative populations.
- Restricted transit portion: 45% of the proceeds would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
- Planning and development component: 0.5% would be reserved for the Hillsborough transport planning body for purposes such as data collection and analysis.
Proceeds are not permitted to fund right-of-way expansion or the width of the interstate highway system.
In practice, only Hillsborough County and Tampa would likely need to follow these additional funding priorities. Plant City and Temple Terrace have discretion to spend their shares, as long as the funds are spent on transportation.
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The county and the three cities will be able to collaborate, pursuing funding partnerships with each other or with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, commonly known by the acronym HART.
The proceeds that HART receives are also subject to a proposed funding formula.
What supervision will there be?
Every agency spending transportation surcharge dollars must present its proposed spending plans each year for a public hearing.
The County Clerk of the Circuit Court must also engage an independent accounting firm to conduct an annual audit of product distribution and expenditures.
An 11-member citizens’ committee will be created to oversee spending. The committee will be a mix of local experts and city and county leaders, reflecting “the diversity of the local community,” according to the county ordinance.
And at least every five years after the surtax is enacted, the County Board of Commissioners will review the distribution of revenue, ensuring it is consistent with the goals and policies of the county’s long-range transportation plan.
What about the trial?
The ballot, drafted by the county and approved by commissioners, asks voters if they approve of a one-cent sales tax that would continue for three decades to fund transportation improvements. It includes the names of potential recipients of Hillsborough funding – Tampa and Plant City, for example – and projects, such as road widening, bridge repairs and improved bus services.
Jaroch, his lawyer and his supporters argue that such language is convoluted and misleading. They say the ballot does not meet the state’s requirement for a simple, narrow question.
“This lawsuit is about getting the government to be honest with the people,” Jaroch wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Weather. “The wording on the ballot misleads people into thinking their vote will build and widen roads in Brandon or expand transit options in Town ‘n’ Country for thirty years.
The County Board of Commissioners must “stop making promises they know they can’t keep,” she wrote.
Jaroch’s lawsuit marks another twist in the years-long and still winding fight over transportation funding in the county.
Confused? Proponents of the transport tax say it is part of the ambition of the lawsuit: a ploy to sow uncertainty about the tax.
“The goal is to confuse people’s minds,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen said, adding that he found the trial disappointing, but not surprising.
“The public needs to vote on this,” he said. “There is a broad consensus in this community that our transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of major upgrades.
When the Hillsborough County Commission voted to authorize a 2010 ballot initiative that would fund a light rail system as well as road improvements and expansion of bus routes with an additional one cent sales tax , Jaroch co-founded No Tax for Tracks which led the ultimately successful opposition.
In 2018, No Tax For Tracks came together. But Hillsborough voters approved a charter amendment, with 57% saying yes to a one-cent sales tax to pay for transit, biking, pedestrian and road projects.
A legal saga then ensued and the Florida Supreme Court eventually struck down the surcharge last year after a challenge from County Commissioner Stacy White, who said it was unconstitutional because expense allowances were determined by a referendum formula rather than by elected commissioners. The more than $560 million collected between January 2019 and the spring of 2021, when the surcharge was canceled, remains in limbo.
Cohen and other surtax supporters say the necessary changes were made this time around to avoid the legal fate of the 2018 referendum.