Monday, August 8, 2016

No More Budget Shell Games - Fund our Roads and Transportation Needs Now!

The county commissioners held a Budget Workshop July 28. The Eye was there. The Workshop was opened to public comment and a number of citizens, including myself, requested the county move now on implementing Commissioner Murman's proposal to use the growth revenues in our existing ballooning budget to fund our roads and transportation needs. 

The dynamics of the Budget Workshop was quite telling. Commissioner Hagan kept insinuating cuts would have to be made for such a plan. That is almost laughable. It does prove some commissioners and unelected bureaucrats do not want to prioritize our ballooning budget, unless, of course, it's to fund a new baseball stadium for another wealthy sports team owner.

Everything cannot be a priority. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. That is fiscally irresponsible.

Such an attitude is what forces Hillsborough County taxpayers to continue funding pork projects, lower priority items, and subsidize wealthy special interests BEFORE funding our roads and transportation needs.

County Administrator Mike Merrill brought up a concern about our reserves and our AAA credit rating. According to the budget presentation given at the Workshop, the county has been dipping into our reserves the last few years to fund parks, fire stations, service centers, nebulous economic development projects - while holding our road funding hostage.

We do not remember hearing this concern during any of those previous budget cycles. Page 25 of the Recommended FY2017 budget states:
Our reserve funds remain stable, and Hillsborough County remains well positioned to excel in meeting the needs of our residents and our business community. 
So which is it? 

If Merrill is suddenly concerned about our reserves affecting our bond rating, then why did he put the county in such a position to begin with?

Decisions still must be made regarding how the $23 million one-time BP settlement windfall, that has no restrictions on it use, will be spent. Some commissioners want to use the funds for transportation which has the biggest funding gap in our budget. Others prefer the money be used for environmental purposes or for our stormwater infrastructure. 

The FY2017 budget dishonestly includes $30 million of taxpayer money to buy back developer's impact fee credits as "transportation spending". This buy back scheme that benefits developers represents 3/5 of the entire transportation spending for FY2017. That is nonsense. The games being played with our tax dollars must stop.

Merrill is a professional at magically pulling money out of his rabbit hat when he wants to.  

We were at the April 13th Community Transportation Plan and Mobility Fee Workshop where the impact fee buy back program was presented to the county commissioners. Merrill and his staff showed how easy it was to "find" or "reallocate" tens of millions of existing budget dollars to fund this buy back scheme. 

At the same time Merrill and his staff have been telling the public for years there was no money for roads. Outrageous!

The county commissioners need to revisit this impact fee buy back program. Either get rid of it and let the actual free marketplace work or consider using the $23 million one-time BP oil spill money to pay for them so taxpayers aren't on the hook for funding another scheme benefitting special interest developers. 

Then the county can honestly use that $30 million Merrill "found" to fund real transportation projects.

There is another BP oil spill settlement the county expects to receive that will have restrictions on its use while this settlement has no restrictions on its use.

Merrill astonishingly revealed at the Workshop that he can start a procurement process for a project that has not been approved by the commissioners and budgeted for. Perhaps that explains how Parsons Brinckerhoff got their million dollar blank check no bid contract procured so fast for the crony Go Hillsborough campaign. That is not good governance.

We have watched a "go along to get along" county commission for too many years. The commissioners have been led by unelected bureaucrats with little or no questions asked, for way too long. 

It was refreshing to see some commissioners pushing back on the unelected bureaucrat's agenda. Both Commissioners White and Murman are to be commended for their comments and actions taken at the Budget Workshop.

The county should not be addressing flagged items at this Workshop. There has not been one budget public hearing because too much time was wasted on two sales tax hike public hearings. White and Murman want to start addressing our transportation issue now and get to work on actually getting something done. Kudos to them.

The poll done by the Go Hillsborough campaign last April highlighted the issue of trust and confidence for how the county spends what we already have. 
Poll questions regarding trust and current spending
Click to enlarge
County collects enough already – no need to raise taxes – do better job of spending money we already have:  69% agree with 46% strongly agreed
We cannot trust politicians to spend new tax money on transportation problems as they promise – they will divert the money as they did the CIT:  69% agree with 42% strongly agreed  
This should have been a big red flag to the county commissioners. When over 2/3 of voters polled agree there is a lack of trust and there is no need to raise taxes, no sales tax hike was ever going to pass.

The sales tax hike is dead. The rubber has hit the road and we must pursue a new direction. 

Our existing budget cannot be used as a shell game to continue funding everything else under the sun except our roads and transportation, a primary responsibility of local government. 

Thankfully some commissioners understand that and want to move on to Plan B. Other commissioners, addicted to a sales tax hike, appear to be in some kind of denial.

The key to start funding our roads and transportation needs now within our existing growing budget is getting Commissioner Murman's funding proposal approved at the Community Transportation Plan Workshop to be held on August 10th at 1:30pm. 

This meeting will be open for public comment. Weigh in by attending and making a public comment in support of Murman's transportation funding proposal or by emailing the county commissioners here

Time to break away from failure.

Time to stop using our budget as a shell game to fund everything under the sun but transportation.

Time for the Chamber of Commerce and our business community to get behind Murman's proposal if they are truly serious about starting to solve our transportation problem. 

Time for our local media to wake up and accurately report what is going on with our county budget because they have been asleep at the wheel. 

Time to put our roads and transportation needs FIRST in our growing budget.

Time for the County to pursue success not failure.

 We demand it!


  1. But Sharon,

    How much longer is car ownership going to be affordable for the majority of Americans (or TB area citizens)?

    When 60% of people would have difficulty coming up w $1000 for an emergency,
    when wages have long stagnated while major costs keep increasing, when most people are getting more financially squeezed by the day, driving and car ownership look to have a limited future. One measured not in decades, but years.

    Also, the price of oil is dropping while production costs keep rising.
    At some point, oil companies will stop producing or go out of business.
    Unless we significantly reduce demand, shortages and price spikes will follow.
    This point may be within 5 years or so.

    I'm not for rail--too expensive and requires too much time to make a viable system--but driving ourselves around the way we have the past 60 yrs does not appear to be
    an option. Spending megadollars on roads would be a mistake, certainly an "investment" we would never recoup.

    If you're wondering what solutions I favor, reducing our radius of travel (living closer to work, for example) and replacing cars w scooters, mo-peds, e-bikes and e-trikes, and innovations such as the ELF ( may be the best road to take.

    1. Cars are amazingly affordable. There are over 300 million cars in the USA, so people are affording them. Keep in mind the average cost of owning car according to AAA is around $9,000, but that's the average, which means 1/2 of the cars on the road cost less than that to drive.

      So you're making that "peak oil" argument again. Well, the technology is keeping up, and fracking costs are getting cheaper. So the end is not as near as we've been led to believe.

      If you want to limit your transportation to buzzing around on an electric moped, that's your choice. We actually proposed more friendly allowances for golf carts (see The Villages) around local roads. However, you are limiting yourself, and if you get your way, to a more constrained, localized life, with corresponding limitations on jobs and economic opportunity. Studies show and we've cited here that cities that have fast transporrtaton options and a wider tolerable commute have more vibrant economies than those with slower and more limited options.

    2. Hillsborough County has neglected our local roads for years and they have not been maintaining and preserving our existing infrastructure. Roads are the foundation of our transportation system and we are 1000 square miles with dispersed work centers and no dense central business district. Innovation is here and quickly emerging that will enable us to use our existing infrastructure much more efficiently and enable more throughput on existing infrastructure. The sharing economy is already upon us and autonomous vehicles will enable even more efficient use of vehicles. Technology continues to make cars and driving safer and reduce accidents, a major cause of congestion. There used to be golf cart short hop ride serve in South Tampa but the PTC shut them down. Now it's time to shut the PTC down. Golf cart ride services are used in South Florida near the beaches and congested restaurant/retail areas. Lots of innovation on the horizon but the innovation is rubber wheeled and on roads. We must maintain, preserve and improve them.