By Jim Bleyer
Tampa businessman Jeff Vinik and his accomplices, a pack of well-heeled downtown pickpockets, are bypassing conventional methods in order to enact a regressive countywide sales tax increase that would be a developer’s wet dream.
Ostensibly, the one percent boost, which would make Hillsborough County residents the most burdened in Florida, is for transit. In reality, the tax will bail out Vinik’s highly leveraged, woefully behind schedule development and free up city and county funds to finance a new ballpark for billionaire Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.
Mobility fees assessed developers could be cut in half. The $15-18 billion in additional funding is also expected to rescue the City of Tampa and Tampa Airport Authority that are facing financial pressures.
The special interest financial rescue will unfairly burden low and middle income families and those on fixed incomes. Minority communities would be displaced by fixed guideways. Citizens not residing in the City of Tampa really get shortchanged and would torpedo such a referendum if it made the ballot.
Mary Helen Farris of the county attorney’s office told Tampa Bay Beat that the statutory requirement for a complete and published audit 60 days before the general election would not be a factor in Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer placing the referendum on the ballot unless the Board of County Commissioners decreed otherwise.
Latimer is in the final days of validating signatures and residency of some 77,000 petitions submitted by All for Transportation, the inaptly named organization concocted by Vinik. If the validation requirements are met, all indications are that Latimer would accede to the wishes of the petitioning group.
But opponents of the developer relief package have many tools at their disposal: county government, state government, the courts, law enforcement.
The state’s foremost elections expert, former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, agreed that Latimer works for the county commission and, short of bringing a legal action against the board, is obligated to put the sales tax hike on the ballot. Litigation would be an extremely rare move, Sancho said, adding that he sued his county commission only once in 28 years as SOE.
”Someone at the county level or the state attorney would have to get involved to ensure the letter of the law is followed,” Sancho explained. “The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) who must conduct the audit is the responsible party and should have a major say in the process.”
Individuals and citizen groups also have the option of going to court with writs of quo warranto or mandamus to ensure all legal requirements are met, he added.
A team of citizen watchdogs on Monday reviewed several hundred petitions that underwent the validation process at SOE offices on Falkenburg Road. The stacks included both those approved and denied.
There were many problems. Signatures were more than illegible; several did not contain as much as one letter in the modern English alphabet (see photo above). More than 90 percent were obtained through paid solicitors. The names and addresses of the solicitors are required but approximately 30 percent of the sample contained incomplete or no addresses.
The validation rate has been hovering around 70 percent but one SOE employee had signed off on and approved 90 of 90 petitions in the sampling. Theoretically, if all employees receive the same training, such an anomaly should not exist. All should be within several points of 70 percent. It’s called best practices.
Latimer’s office has no mechanism for measuring the (in)effectiveness of individual employees thus compromising the process. If the true validation rate is around 66 or 67 percent, one employee going off the reservation could boost the overall rate to 70 percent.
Editor’s Note: Latimer’s office would not permit photos of the submitted petitions or signatures. Whether or not this violates Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law is open for debate.