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Much interest shown in sales tax increase

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Sun City Center – Proposed increase of Hillsborough County’s sales tax for transportation purposes is getting thorough airing here.
In the second of three scheduled debates focused on the sales tax increase to fund a range of rail and road projects, a pair of economic development specialists last week offered very different takes on the prospect.
Meeting during a session of the Sun City Center Forum Club, Katie Franco, public policy director for the Tampa Bay Partnership, an eight-county organization encouraging economic development in the greater Tampa Bay region, emphasized the “pro” side of the issue as Jim Hosler, a demographics expert and co-founder of the South Hillsborough Economic Development Council, asserted the “con” positions.
The object of their opposition is the proposed one percent increase in Hillsborough County’s sales tax – from seven to eight cents on the dollar – to help pay for both a light rail transit route in Tampa and for road improvements in various parts of the county – including South Hillsborough - selected from a long master list.
The sales tax increase issue well may be on the local election ballot this fall in the form of an up-or-down referendum, the balanced wording of which was considered recently by county commissioners.
piece-of-pieThe same topic is slated for airing next week when two county commissioners – Mark Sharpe and Al Higginbotham – are scheduled to meet in a debate arranged by the Sun City Center Community Association. Sharpe is a strong supporter of commuter rail transit and proponent of the sales tax increase as a means of getting the Tampa light rail network underway. Higginbotham, on the other hand, has stated he cannot support a sales tax increase under the present economic conditions and consequently is not promoting the commuter rail at this point. Their debate, open to the public, is set for noon, Thursday, April 22, in Community Hall on the retirement community’s south side. Former CA President Paul Wheat is to serve as moderator.
Sharpe and Hosler also debated the multi-faceted tax and transportation subject about a month ago before local Republicans.
In their confrontation last week Franco and Hosler disagreed most vigorously on the timing and value of a light rail to the Tampa community, particularly in a period of uncertain economic conditions. Franco pointed out that commuter rail in Tampa was being discussed 10 years ago, but not pushed. “If we’d done it then, we’d be riding it now,” she said. Hosler, however, called the proposed sales tax increase for rail “a bad investment due to the unknowns,” emphasized that no business plan has been produced demonstrating the project’s feasibility and asked rhetorically “why should the public loan money when a bank would not?”
Elaborating on her point after the meeting, Franco pointed to Charlotte, N.C., commuter rail system which, she noted, has proved popular with both residents and visitors, and was partially funded with federal money that would have come to Tampa if the community had been behind its light rail system in years past. Estimated ridership figures on the light rail system from the University of South Florida to Temple Terrace to the Westshore area of Tampa put 24,000 riders aboard on a typical workday by 2035, she added. Plus, she said, the per-square-mile population in Charlotte is 1,690 but nearly double that – 3,000 people per square mile – in Tampa.
Hosler, on the other hand, asserted that historically the greatest positive impacts of light rail for a community occur only within about a quarter mile of station stops and said “the real need is for regional (as opposed to single community) planning” in connection commuter rail transportation. What’s more, he said, three cities with commuter rail systems funded with sales taxes are experiencing fiscal problems. Boston cannot support its system with a one percent sales tax, expansion of the system in Phoenix is on hold because of a decline in sales tax revenues complicated by increases in costs, and the D.C. Metro in the nation’s capital has been subsidized in the last couple of years with about $186 million in federal aid, he added.
Regarding the matter of sales tax as unreasonable burden, Franco noted that this method of funding spreads the generation of revenues over a broad base, including not only local residents but also all visitors, conventioneers and vacationers. And, while increase of the local option fuel taxes could be accessed for road work and also would be paid by visitors, these monies are dwindling due to drivers economizing by driving less and increasing use of hybrid vehicles, she added.
Hosler, though, labeled a sales tax increase “regressive and unstable.” He pointed out that poorer citizens bear a heavier tax burden because, while everyone pays the sales tax, those with lower incomes must give a higher percentage of their incomes to taxes. He asserted that because Florida has the second most regressive tax system in the country, “the new one cent will make Hillsborough County the most regressive county in the second most regressive state.”
His approach to funding road needs, he suggested, would be to abandon the one percent sales tax increase as well as the light rail transit concept and increase the local option fuel tax to pay only for roads and road-related projects. Another approach, he added, might be to seek a half penny sales tax increase after economic conditions improve and earmark that revenue solely for roads.
Franco countered, however, that county-wide there is a $62 billion shortfall in road infrastructure and that the quarter penny portion of the proposed one percent increase “will start to fill in the gaps.” She also emphasized the need for improvement in Hillsborough’s bus transportation system, adding that a portion of the sales tax increase would be applied to this transport component. The city of Dallas, Texas, covers about 700 square miles and services it with 674 bus vehicles, she said, while Hillsborough County encompassing about a 1,000 square miles serves the area with only 202 busses. In this county at the present time about 13 percent of the residents have access to public bus service, she noted.
Although Franco and Hosler strongly disagree on funding sources, timing of funding efforts and types of transportation projects to be undertaken, they did suggest accord on taking a regional view. In the long term, it should be possible to take a commuter train out of Sarasota, arriving at a station hub in Tampa and connecting with the Tampa commuter or with a high speed train to Orlando or on to Miami. The high speed network is to be underwritten by federal funding and the local system costs are to be shared, with the federal government contributing 50 percent and the state as well as the county each chipping in 25 percent of the project price tag. “But it has to start here with baby steps,” Franco said.
Though supportive of a regional approach involving several jurisdictions, Hosler questioned whether the state will be able to produce the funds to back its 25 percent share and asked what would happened if the sales tax increase were accepted but there were no matching funds available. “A potential bait and switch?.” he queried, “and for what? Civic pride?”
© 2010 Melody Jameson

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