Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pass The Referendum First To Find out What's in It?

The two year push for a 2016 transportation referendum officially took a leap forward Tuesday with the Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group doling out $900K of our tax dollars to hire a mercenary force to engage in the next phase.

At Tuesday's Policy Leadership Group meeting, County Administrator Mike Merrill informed the county commissioners and other PLG members that Hillsborough County is handing Parsons Brinckherhoff (PB) a $900K no-bid contract. The almost million dollars of taxpayer monies will be paid to PB for some technical analysis regarding the laundry list of $12-$15 Billion transportation projects listed on the TED website, performing public engagement and outreach and then writing our county's transportation plan

After spending 2.5 years of county time, county effort and county resources on this very issue, we will now outsource, at a cost of almost a million taxpayer dollars, our transportation plan to special interest Parsons Brinckerhoff. PB is a well-known mercenary force for their political prowess to push local ballot initiatives through the political system. 
Transportation Plan outsourced to Parsons Brinckerhoff via
a no-bid contract (click to enlarge)
PB can then give back to the cause they helped create. By donating tens of thousands of dollars to the private advocacy campaigns, like the $50K they gave to Greenlight Pinellas, helps ensure PB gets another contract at taxpayer expense and the mercenary force continues.

While stating the county doesn't have a dime to spare in our budget, Merrill magically found $500K for transportation planning to include in the FY2015 budget. Those county dollars will be handed to PB. However, the PLG still needs another $400K to pay PB for the contract work awarded them. Did the county sign, seal and deliver the PB contract without having the funds to pay for it? 

Apparently, Merrill will be now be knocking on the door of the MPO, which conveniently was handed a $600K grant for their federally mandated Long Range Transportation Planning from FDOT at last weeks October 15 BOCC meeting.
BOCC appropriates $600K FDOT LRTP grant to MPO 
We also learned at the PLG meeting Tuesday that Merrill has already been presenting to groups and organizations that a "something for everyone" transportation plan is coming.  We don't know what the plan is, we don't know what's in it and we don't know what it will cost. But no worries, rest assured - everyone will love it because "it" will have something for them.  Sound eerily familiar - like our CIT tax?

So how will we pay for this "something for everyone" non-plan plan? No worries there either. Merrill is telling those organizations and groups to "prepare" for a 2016 sales tax referendum.  When did the county commissioners give Merrill the authority to do such presentations?  Was there a discussion among the county commissioners and a vote giving Merrill all this authority that we missed? If the county commissioners want this information presented now, why aren't they doing it?

The Tribune covered the PLG meeting by reporting that we're getting another comprehensive rail referendum similar to what was defeated in 2010.
County Administrator Mike Merrill has already been meeting with business groups and community service organizations to discuss the policy group’s preliminary plans. These include road, bridge and trail projects; a doubling of the HART bus system; and a light rail line from Westshore to downtown Tampa.

Voters will be asked to approve a 1 cent sales tax increase in 2016 for the work to go forward.

Merrill estimated he’s made 15 speaking appearances, “but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are 200 more that need to be done.” 
Merrill said once he explains the county’s finances, and why more money is not available for needed transportation improvements, listeners have been more willing to back a comprehensive plan that would likely include a tax increase.
County leaders have made public engagement a priority. A number of county leaders blame the failure of the 2010 transportation tax referendum on a lack of communication with residents.
How does a train from Westshore to downtown Tampa help move people in Hillsborough County from where they live to where they work? Wasn't that the main purpose of this effort? Maybe the Westshore Alliance, the Tampa Chamber, the Downtown Partnership and the Tampa Bay Partnership, who continually insist we need this train, will pay for it. But why should Hillsborough County taxpayers?

While it appears Merrill is publicly presenting to others that this light rail is coming, he also stated at the PLG meeting Tuesday that the transportation plan or referendum may not include any specifics about mode of transportation. TBT picked up on that:
If Hillsborough County voters are asked in 2016 to approve an extra sales tax for transportation, the ballot question might not mention the words "light rail" — or any other specific mode of mass transit. 
In a move that sharply differs from the Greenlight Pinellas referendum, a Hillsborough plan that could be the backbone for a referendum here would refer only to "fixed guideways" — a term that includes bus rapid transit and all types of rail, including heavy, light or commuter.
BRT, Light rail, commuter rail and heavy rail are all very different services. They have very different cost structures and are used for very different purposes. 

We certainly hope that elected officials would not even think about hiding from voters and taxpayers exactly what a new tax will be used for. That invites waste, fraud, corruption and no accountability.

How can the county commissioners hide what a new tax will pay for? Financial impact information must now be included on all county referendums. Revenue generated from the tax and costs associated with what the tax is paying for must be included in the ballot language of the referendum. How can cost information be included in the ballot language of any referendum if it doesn't state what any new tax will be paying for?

 Haven't we heard that before?

"You just have to pass the referendum first to find out what's in it"...

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