By Tom Rask, Tampa Bay Guardian
Majority voter support for the proposed 14 percent hike in the Hillsborough County sales tax, already a dim possibility, has been dealt another blow from an unlikely source.
If the statutorily required audit of the government agencies receiving the tax windfall was supposed to inspire voter confidence in the $15-18 billion, 30-year tax, a state agency may have just reduced the likelihood of that happening.
The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the state agency responsible for performing the audit, claims that the audit work plan is not a public record. Janet Tashner, OPPAGA’s general counsel, told The Guardian that “the work plan is a work paper related to an authorized project and therefore exempt under section 11.51(4), Florida Statutes.”
This is the second time Tashner has claimed that the work plan is not a public record. She has also denied or delayed public records to entities questioning the propriety of the process and the tax itself.
Seven special interest entities have donated $925,000 to fund the “All for Transportation” (AFT) transit tax hike petition effort, literally buying their way onto the November ballot. Only $1,025 has been donated by individuals – in a county of 1.3 million people.
The statute cited by Tashner uses the term “work papers” without defining it, and there appears to be no case law to provide guidance as to what “work papers” might be.
Regardless of the legal merits, withholding the work plan is not likely to increase public support for the tax hike, or public trust in government. Providing the audit report without telling the public how the audit was planned and executed is no different than convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff telling his investors about the high returns he could provide them with….while refusing to disclose his investment strategy.
OPPAGA issued the purchase order for the audit on August 1st. Before commencing the audit, the Houston-based auditing firm of McConnell Jones was required to submit a “work plan” by August 8th of this year (see deliverable #2 on page 65 of the Request For Quote).
McConnell Jones was then required to submit a draft audit report on August 22nd, just three weeks after the purchase order was issued. Can the “high-quality” work McConnell Jones promised be achieved in just three weeks? This while auditing both Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority (HART).
This question can only be answered by our readers. We only ask that readers keep in mind the approximately $15 billion over the next 30 years that this tax would raise.
McConnell Jones itself called the work plan a DWP, a “detailed work plan,” said it was “comprehensive” and “flexible,” and promised to “exceed OPPAGA’s expectations for high-quality performance, on time, and within budget.” But how is the public to know that a high quality audit was performed? Apparently, we are supposed to take the vendor’s and OPPAGA’s word for it.
The proposed tax on Hillsborough County voter’s November ballot involved a 14 percent increase in the sales tax, taking the tax rate from 7 percent to 8 percent. Also on the ballot is a proposed half-percent sales tax to fund Hillsborough County schools.