By Jim Bleyer
The proposed $15 billion Hillsborough County transit initiative is primarily designed to rescue two failing private-sector entities and bring to fruition a taxpayer subsidized ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The fact that those bankrolling the petition effort are hiding behind a “non-profit,” tells voters all they need to know. The front man for the effort refused to tell us who hides in the shadows.
But the motives are clear despite the group’s gross misnomer: All for Transportation.
It’s a Hail Mary aimed at bailing out former hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik, the Tampa Bay Times and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.
Other major beneficiaries will be land use attorneys, downtown businesses, and the development crowd that drenches itself in undeserved riches courtesy of public officials like County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
This is White Power without the robes, raised fists, and burning crosses.
The biggest losers will be those that Tampa’s hypocritical oligarchy say they are trying to help: low income minorities and retirees on a fixed income. These groups—and everyone else—will be forking over an eight percent sales tax, the highest in Florida along with tiny Liberty County in the panhandle.
The transit petition is anything but “grass roots.” For the past two months the transit plot was being hatched in the offices of Strategic Property Partners, Vinik’s development company whose Water Street project is more appropriately referred to as “Underwater Street Tampa” in local business circles.
Kevin Thurman, former executive director of Connect Tampa Bay and now an independent transit consultant, has sustained multiple failures in previous efforts to cram light rail down the throats of Tampa Bay residents. Working with Vinik’s people, Thurman cobbled together a malleable transportation plan as the basis for the petition. Thurman’s significant other is Ali Glisson, Vinik’s PR mouthpiece.
If there was an Addy award for false and misleading advertising, the current petition drive would win it handily. Proponents wrongly assert the sales tax increase will raise $8.4 billion over 30 years but that doesn’t account for Hillsborough’s projected growth. A more accurate estimate is $15 billion.
The oligarchs driving the petition are going for The Big Lie which will be pimped by the economically struggling Tampa Bay Times.
Vinik is one of a handful of Times “investors” who has benefited from favorable coverage. Another is Darryl Shaw, a real estate magnate who has bought acres of property in and around Ybor City, site of the Rays proposed ballpark.
There’s more hypocrisy in the proposed additional one percent sales tax. This developer-led effort is designed to free county funds for a stadium in addition to bailing out Vinik.
Who will be displaced by the prioritized light rail routes that will run from University of South Florida to downtown and downtown to the airport? Low income families. Who will benefit? Tampa’s downtown business community, not working people without a car.
More gentrification at the working poor’s expense.
The duplicity of those who are promoting this “transit” travesty is only matched by their chutzpah. Tyler Hudson, the front man for the scheme, refused to respond to Tampa Bay Beat when asked who was financing the petition drive. We know little about Hudson except that his parents must have been avid watchers of “Matlock.”
A well-publicized dog-and-pony show conducted by Hudson last Thursday night at Rooftop 220 in Tampa drew 70 attendees. They included Hillsborough County Commission candidates Kimberly Overman and Mark Nash as well as Tampa mayoral hopeful Mike Suarez. They are either complicit in this farce or haven’t done their homework. The same can be said for Topher Morrison, another candidate for Tampa mayor, who boasted on social media that he was one of the first to sign the petition.
There seems to be little appetite in the Tampa business community for this proposed referendum except for the fat cats that plan on a windfall. A Tampa Bay Business Journal survey of its readership—basically the Tampa Bay establishment— showed 74 percent would vote “no.”
To get on the November ballot, the petition must have 49,000 valid signatures of registered voters submitted to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office by July 27. That’s less than five weeks away but Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer has been known to adjust deadlines for certain candidates and causes.
As if this eleventh-hour boondoggle did not have sufficient headwinds, the petition contains defective language and could be challenged in circuit court, according to experts we contacted. You can read the 3 1/2-page petition here in Google Chrome.
We spoke with Mary Helen Ferris of the Hillsborough County attorney’s office who told us that two previous attempts to amend the charter by citizen petition never made it to the ballot. One was an effort to expand the county commission membership from seven to nine in 1992; a 2006 proposal for having a county mayor constituted the second failure.
The petition language on both occasions was challenged successfully in circuit court, Ferris explained, adding that the county never takes sides in any such litigation.
Tampa Bay Beat will continue to chronicle the petition drive and name other plutocrats involved in this grandiose deception.