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Commissioners bring different styles, convictions to debate

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By MELODY JAMESON
mj@observernews.net

SUN CITY CENTER – Confident in their positions and competent in their deliveries, Hillsborough County commissioners Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe brought opposing views and differing styles to their debate here last week of the proposed sales tax increase.

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Al Higginbotham, Hillsborough County Commissioner.
Melody Jameson photo
Higginbotham, a Plant City resident who represents the large fourth district encompassing East and South County areas, maintained a calm, even-handed demeanor as he argued against what he considers the deceptively large potential sales tax increase expected to be on the fall ballot.
On the other hand, Sharpe, Tampa resident, former teacher and now at-large or county-wide commissioner, gestured emphatically at times as he spoke passionately about the importance of approving the tax increase to underwrite light rail, and bus transit projects, as well as needed roadway improvements in the next three decades.
Experienced public speakers, accustomed to addressing complex subjects from the commissioners’ wide horseshoe dais at County Center, the two succeeded in distinguishing their positions while remaining collegially respectful.
Higginbotham displayed with pride his public transit bus pass, announcing he’s the only commissioner among seven who regularly rides HARTline busses between his home and downtown Tampa. While he opposes the sales tax increase and most specifically the proposed light rail transit route between the University of South Florida and the Westshore district, he enthusiastically supported the public bus system, indicating he believes it should be beefed up through another means.
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Mark Sharpe, Hillsborough County Commissioner.
Melody Jameson photo
Sharpe, for his part, played the competition card, stressing that the metro Tampa area needs to get started on an expandable light rail transit system in order to be competitive with other cities vying for coveted clean industry to boost job markets and enhance livability. Efficient modes of transportation, of moving people between key points quickly, in pleasant, environmentally friendly circumstances, are among the top considerations on corporate priority lists when companies think about relocating, he said. Light rail lines also attract new business ventures along their routes, he noted.
These issues, though, do not justify what actually is a 14 percent tax increase, Higginbotham asserted several times. The sales tax hike as currently proposed is couched in terms such as a one percent increase or a penny on the dollar, he said, but in reality will create an eight-cent sales tax per one dollar in Hillsborough County and represents a rise of a full 14 percent. Such a sales tax locally would be the highest in Florida. How can anyone call themselves fiscally conservative and try to impose a 14 percent tax increase, Higginbotham asked rhetorically.
Sharpe was quick to point out that both Pinellas County to the west on the other side of Tampa Bay and Pasco County to the north are mulling sales tax increases in their jurisdictions in varying amounts. Both are watching the Hillsborough experience unfold and may follow Hillsborough’s lead, he added.
Pointedly referring to himself as a “problem solver,” Sharpe said that from a problem resolving perspective the proposed tax increase is the best direction to take in order to begin meeting transportation needs. Without it, he added, completion of widening U.S. 301 south to S.R. 674, for example, cannot transpire.
Further, Sharpe argued, roads are expensive, never profitable and often must be subsidized. And, putting the future in the hands of oil-producing nations, waiting for gasoline to reach $5, $6, or $7 per gallon is not acceptable, he added. “The iceberg is straight ahead,” he noted.
But Higginbotham noted that supporters of light rail have become so smitten with rail they are overlooking pertinent facts. With bankruptcies up 21 percent over the last year and unemployment at historic highs, the tax increase is not acceptable, he said. “Look at this as a mini-bailout of government,” the commissioner added, “it should be about how you spend your money.”
The two-hour program, moderated by former SCC Community Association President Paul Wheat, brought out a sparse crowd of about 125 area residents. Wheat said another such event may be scheduled late in the summer prior to the sales tax balloting.
© 2010 Melody Jameson

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