Monday, February 15, 2016

No Case For a Sales Tax Hike, No More Talking About Stalking - Move to Plan B

The Tampa Tribune today published Ken Roberts Letter to the Editor titled ‘No case’ for referendum for sales tax increase. We are reposting his well thought out letter on the Eye and also include some of our own editorial comments.

‘No case’ for referendum for sales tax increase

Should Hillsborough County commissioners vote to put a sales tax increase referendum on the 2016 ballot? Regardless what the specific plan is, should we raise sales taxes to pay for it? A careful look reveals no case for a sales tax increase referendum.

First and foremost: The county already has the money. We have been told for years now that there is no money available to fund transportation improvements, and we must have a new revenue source. But if you ignore what they have been saying and watch what they are doing, you find this is nonsense. During the 2016 budgeting process about $121 million of new money was found. While saying transportation is the top priority for the county, commissioners spent only $8 million of this extra money on transportation.

The people have already donated $121 million. There is no case for us to raise taxes on ourselves for another $117 million a year for the next 30 years. Transportation improvements are expensive enough without paying for them twice.

Second, there are those on the board who say, “We believe in democracy; let’s put it on the ballot and let the people decide.” But, again, if you ignore what they say and watch what they do, this position doesn’t hold water, either. While they are saying they want to let the people decide, what they have been doing is working to deny our right to decide on another important tax item that was scheduled to appear on the 2016 ballot.

State law requires voters to review and re-authorize taxing authorities. In 2016 we were scheduled to vote on whether to continue the taxing authority of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, but supporters of a sales tax increase had that item taken off the 2016 ballot. They thought that two tax issues on the same ballot would spell doom for at least one of them, so they went to our state legislators and asked them to act to get it off the ballot to increase the odds of passing a sales tax increase. Our state legislators quietly passed a law and took it off the ballot.

If the county commission believes so strongly in the people having the right to decide, then why take away the people’s right to decide on continuation of the Children’s Board’s taxing authority? The answer is: They are not interested in our right to decide. They are interested in passing a sales tax increase.

Commissioner Sandra Murman has offered an alternative to a sales tax increase for funding transportation improvements. Three components are involved: a 5-cent increase in the gas tax ($25 million); a new mobility fee to pay for the impact of development on the existing system ($30 million); and a reprioritizing of the budget to dedicate a significant amount of new revenues to a transportation fund. Dedicating 50 percent of the $121 million of new money from the 2016 budget would mean $60 million. Add that to the gas tax and mobility fee, and that’s a total of $115 million per year to fund improvements — with no new sales tax increase!

We need to oppose putting a sales tax increase on the ballot and insist the county use the three-step funding approach to improve transportation as outlined above. A sales tax increase is not needed, and a vote to put one on the ballot is a vote for a sales tax increase. Tell the commissioners to vote “no” on putting this on the ballot and use the money they have.

Ken Roberts
Apollo Beach
The writer is with Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation.

Roberts brings up the point how local power brokers and Children's Board lobbyists successfully lobbied Tallahassee last year to get the Children's Board property tax, up for reauthorization in 2016, off the 2016 ballot. Back then the Hillsborough County power brokers were fearful of having two tax referendums on the 2016 ballot fearing they would both be defeated. We never heard a peep about that action from the "let the voters vote on the transportation sales tax hike" crowd. That action actually disenfranchised voters this year from voicing whether to reauthorize the property tax for the Children's Board which recently had to deal with their own cronyism issues.

Received via a public records request was the text message thread below dated 5/21/2015 between crony Beth Leytham and County Administrator Mike Merrill. How often did Leytham meet with the editorial boards as a conduit between her and Merrill to influence Merrill? Leytham informs Merrill that the Governor signed the bill that got the Children's Board property tax reauthorization off the 2016 ballot. Merrill answers Leytham with a hand clap emoticon to display his "glee"and responds "the way is being made clear" [for his huge proposed sales tax hike to get on the 2016 ballot]. Is that nauseating?

Text messages between Beth Leytham and Mike Merrill
on 5/21/2015 (click to enlarge)

5/21/2015 is two weeks before the 6/11/2015 Policy Leadership Group (PLG) meeting where the Parsons/Leytham/Merrill cabal proposed another huge 30 year one-half percent sales tax hike - a huge tax hike for a plan that did not even exist. The cabal knew from the get-go that another sales tax hike referendum was the answer. That is why Merrill was cheerfully clapping when told the Children's Board property tax reauthorization got off the 2016 ballot.  

I have been a consultant and have had consultants work for me and I have never seen communication like this between consultants and the high level executive that hired them. 

Is the language used in this text thread professional? Is the language used in this text thread how consultants and their employer normally communicate? Is the language used in this text thread appropriate between the highest level bureaucrat in the county and the politically well connected PR crony Leytham? 

What consultant and high level executive talks about stalking? 

When Noah Pransky first broke his story about Beth Leytham back last September, Merrill had the audacity to tell Pransky he did not even know who Beth Leytham was in August 2014. That was when Leytham sent Merrill a text message regarding the hiring of a transportation expert [Parsons Brinckerhoff her client] with "communication team in tow" [a team of one - her]. 

That is laughable. How does Merrill get from saying he did not know who Leytham was in August 2014 to having the text message thread above in May 2015 saying it's ok to be stalked by his consultant.

There is something very wrong down at County Center that has enabled cronies and close associates to wield such undue power and influence, and enabled a powerful bureaucracy to spin out of control overreaching its own authority.

The dark cloud hanging over Go Hillsborough is not going away. The process was flawed resulting in a flawed plan. The ethics of the entire debacle stinks. What business community will support and sink $2 million into an advocacy campaign to support such a crony flawed smelly mess? 

Roberts LTE lays out the fiscal reality that we do not need a sales tax hike to fund our roads and transportation. 

There is a way out but the commissioners must use their own political capital which is what they are elected to do. They must dump Go Hillsborough and reign in the bureaucrats to bring integrity back into the process. They must do fiscal due diligence to reprioritize our current budget and use the powers they already have to start funding our roads and transportation NOW.  

Stop pursuing a sales tax hike and stop any further talking about any type of stalking.

We must move on to Plan B!

Update:  Text thread that reflects the names of the Leytham/Merrill text thread can be found here.

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