By Jim Bleyer
There is one group in Hillsborough County that Jeff Vinik can’t buy.
The Vinik-inspired sales tax referendum came under heavy fire Thursday night when Tampa’s African American community attacked it as vague, promoting unwanted gentrification, and a bailout for development interests at the expense of the working poor.
After the meeting, NAACP President Yvette Lewis declared the referendum’s backers “can’t ram this down our throat. Our community will cast a ‘no’ vote against this regressive tax.”
For Vinik: an epic fail.
Vinik’s three stooges—Rena Frazier, Brian Willis, and Michael Stephens—were envisioned by their boss as glib emissaries. At the end of the evening, the trio were tongue-tied and nonplused by incisive questioning and criticism over Vinik’s hidden agenda—the bailout of his troubled Water Street Tampa development.
Tampa Bay Beat has learned from two independent sources that certain people close to the NAACP were offered cash to wheedle an endorsement of what amounts to a multi-billion dollar taxpayer swindle. No amount of cajoling, pandering, and outright lying had any effect either.
No local media were in apparent attendance. The Tampa Bay Times, the primary propaganda arm for Vinik, was criticized for its unbalanced coverage of the issue which will, if passed, displace minorities residing in East Tampa.
Vinik is the de facto owner of the Times. He and a few others essentially own the financially failing media entity. Other media outlets in Tampa Bay have been compromised in their coverage of the transit scam and Tampa Bay Beat will have more on this in the coming week.
Tyler Hudson, Vinik’s point man in the grossly misnamed All For Transportation (AFT) effort, sat grim faced in the audience as criticism from Tampa’s black community rained down on the plan. Cristina Barker, Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s former protegé on loan to Vinik, sat frowning and scribbling notes. Kevin Thurman, the fourth stooge and relegated to the audience, ineptly tried to explain the glaring flaws in the $15 billion, 30-year developer bailout which would make Hillsborough County the Florida county with the highest sales tax.
Stephens propagandized the regressive tax as the “alternative to nothing” but irate audience members debunked that explanation as clearly false.
Rejection of the transit tax by a key demographic could seal the fate of the misguided referendum. The Vinik-led scheme already had stiff opposition from residents in unincorporated Hillsborough, conservatives, savvy progressives, and those who didn’t just enter this life and are able to recognize blatant fraud.
City voters outside the downtown core won’t benefit from an expensive USF-airport light rail system that would be obsolete well before its completion.
“If Jeff Vinik and Frank Morsani were interested in the minority community,” they would have been paying the $30 annual NAACP dues,” observed one member of the audience.
Morsani, along with Vinik, are the main bankrollers of the tax. The Morsani College of Medicine at The University of South Florida is the anchor tenant at the Water Street flop.
Others criticized the All for Transportation so-called “ oversight committee” which has no allowance for average citizens who will be affected by the billion dollar scam. The committee would consist of representatives of the special interests who will reap the financial windfall from the tax.
Attendees at the monthly meeting wisely noted that developers have not been paying impact fees commensurate with the benefits they reap from Hillsborough County.
Earlier in the day, Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White held a press conference where he asserted the $15 billion Vinik honeypot would be overseen by a committee not accountable to the citizens of Hillsborough County.
White also noted that added road capacity, defined as widening roads or building new roads, is expressly prohibited under the Vinik scheme. Because of the prohibition, the plan would do very little for suburban commuters, he said.
The commissioner’s concerns dovetailed with those expressed at the NAACP meeting.
“This proposal seeks to embed this tax into the Hillsborough County Charter (which is like our local constitution) and it does not call for just the tax increase,” White explained.
“It would give an independent committee – whose members would not be responsible or accountable to you, the citizen – the authority to spend the funds. Furthermore, the ballot language paves the way for this committee to be stacked with members that are not from the areas where the majority of these taxes will be paid.”
The name “All for Transportation” is a red herring. In a county where 1.4 million reside, it was actually a microscopic “community” of five donors who paid consultants and petition gatherers to get the transit tax hike on the ballot. A dismal $700.72 came from 10 other donors, a whopping 15 donors in all.
The referendum, with misleading and suspect ballot language, was approved for the November ballot by Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. An auditing process that typically takes a minimum of six months was fast-tracked in 40 days. The auditing firm in charge has a history of fraudulent activity and was forced to change its name due to its disreputable skullduggery in Alabama.