By Jim Bleyer
Acknowledging he feels pressure in deliberating and ruling on a lawsuit challenging the validity of the Hillsborough County sales tax for transit, Judge Rex Barbas nevertheless promised anything but a quick resolution to the issue.
Both sides participated in a marathon hearing Friday with more arguments scheduled on Friday, May 31.
”This case has a lot of pressure,” Barbas remarked during public testimony on the tax issue. The judge also opined that the case will be appealed regardless of his ruling.
It is estimated that judgment from an appellate court would be handed down in January, 2020 at the earliest.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White is asking the courts to overturn the transit tax that was promoted by special interests led by Jeff Vinik, the de facto owner of the Tampa Bay Times. The additional one per cent levy, making Hillsborough the highest sales tax county in Florida, would finance a light rail system integral to the success or failure of Vinik’s $3 billion Water Street Tampa development.
The tax is being collected despite the possibility that the results of a November referendum approving it may be invalidated.
Vinik created All for Transportation (AFT), to promote the tax, expected to reel in $16 billion over its 30-year life. AFT inundated Hillsborough voters with glossy mailers falsely claiming it had a plan to cut traffic congestion throughout the county.
Six members of the public, including former Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) member Karen Jaroch, spoke against the tax. Only one person, land use attorney Ron Weaver, spoke in favor of the tax and he stands to profit from it.
Jaroch pointed out the appointed oversight committee has two of 13 members from unincorporated Hillsborough which has 68 percent of the population and provides 74 percent of county revenue. Plant City, she noted, with three percent of the county population has three representatives on the committee.
The 75 words on the ballot did not accurately reflect the breadth of the ultimate measure, Jaroch said. Barbas was clearly impressed with her testimony.
Questioned by Attorney Alan Zimmet who represents the jurisdictions that want the tax implemented, Jaroch more than held her own, prompting Barbas to reiterate his admiration of her knowledge of the law.
The public misinformation campaign leading up to the November referendum was augmented by the Tampa Bay Times but Barbas asserted that he cannot consider the AFT marketing effort, no matter how deceptive, in his decision. The ballot language and the constitutionality of having a citizens’ oversight committee parcel out the billions are the real crux of the lawsuit.
The ballot summary language stated the massive tax hike would fund road improvements. In fact, AFT included improving roads and bridges first in the list of projects to be funded – as if to tell voters that funding road improvements was the highest priority use for the billions in new tax revenues.
Voters reading the ballot summary language can reasonably and logically construe the billions would fund new road capacity, White’s legal team argued.
The definition of road improvements includes “construction of new roads or improvement or expansion of existing roads…” Common knowledge, and common sense would conclude that transportation projects to “improve roads” includes transportation projects to add new road capacity.
A pro-transit activist has filed a 27-count ethics complaint against Commissioner White who labeled the action “a publicity stunt that has been conveniently timed to coincide with the hearing on my lawsuit.”
Duane Draper, a Zimmet colleague with Bryant Miller Olive sat in the audience, not at the defense table, passing notes throughout the day to Zimmet and his colleagues. Draper focuses his practice on both bond counsel and disclosure counsel representations of Florida counties, cities, special districts and non-profits.