TAMPA — Hillsborough County is set to spend nearly $700,000 to engage the community on just one topic: transportation.
County commissioners will review a $699,958 work order with engineering firm HNTB Corp on Thursday. to provide “support for transportation community engagement efforts” ahead of the November referendum on a proposed 1% transportation sales tax.
Work will include hosting community meetings, developing and distributing printed materials, responding to inquiries from the news media and the public, and preparing public presentations and content for social media and the web. The company will also coordinate with the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization on the public information campaign.
If voters approve, the tax is expected to raise $342 million in its first full year. He asks that 45% of the revenue be allocated to the public transport company. The county and cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would divide 54.5 percent based on their population, and half a percent would be reserved for the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.
The HNTB contract represents roughly half of the $1.35 million the county spent to gauge public interest in a transportation sales tax proposal six years ago. The effort, dubbed Go Hillsborough, never made it to voters after a majority of the then-commission refused to ask the tax question on the November 2016 ballot.
Two years later, voters approved a 1% sales tax for transportation by a 57-43% margin. The Florida Supreme Court later struck down the tax after a challenge from Commissioner Stacy White. He argued that the measure was unconstitutional because spending was not determined by elected officials.
Commissioner Gwen Myers highlighted the 2018 results in favor of the HNTB contract and the new sales tax referendum.
“There are people who didn’t support it the first time around, but voters – I want to be clear – voters see the need and why we need to get this tax passed. They are tired of sitting in traffic,” she said.
Under state law, governments can educate the public, but not advocate for referendums. The commission slated HNTB for the project on May 4, but the contract amount was not negotiated at the time. White cast the only vote cast against hiring HNTB.
“It’s easy to blur the lines between advocacy and education,” White said. “I was unwilling to vote for a measure that might lead to blurred lines.”
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The county said it faced a $1.5 billion shortfall to expand and improve its transportation system over the next decade, plus another $700 million to maintain transportation facilities. The transit authority, now funded by an annual property tax, said it needs an additional $10.9 billion over the next 30 years for vehicles and other changes to provide a better service.
A tax opponent said the public is already aware of the county’s transportation problems.
“It’s strange that the county wants to spend $700,000 to educate the public on ‘the current state of transportation’ when the public already knows because they deal with it every day,” said Sharon Calvert of the band Fix Our. Roads First. “This (the HNTB contract) is more like a taxpayer-funded messaging campaign walking precariously on a very tightrope.”