Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Hillsborough County Hires HNTB, With PR, Marketing and Political Consulting Firms In Tow, For Transportation "Public Engagement" Before Knowing What the Campaign Will Cost Taxpayers

It is rail tax campaign time again in Hillsborough County!

Hillsborough County commissioners voted today to hire HNTB for a transportation public engagement program....right after the Tampa Centric 5 voted to put an $18 BILLION rail tax on the November ballot. 

But no one was told how much this will cost taxpayers. No cost estimate, even if just high level, was provided to the commissioners or the public for how much the County expects to spend with HNTB. 

Today's Agenda item item B-1 below just states the County has taxpayer money to spend: 

Approve the staff recommendation to select the HNTB Corporation (HNTB) and negotiate a Work Order to provide support for the Transportation Community Engagement. This work will include the development and implementation of a community transportation engagement program that informs and raises awareness about the current state of transportation across Hillsborough County (the "Project"). This effort will include the City of Tampa, City of Plant City, City of Temple Terrace, Hillsborough Transit Authority (HART), and the Transportation Planning Organization. The fees for services will be negotiated with HNTB and brought back to the Board for approval within thirty (30) days. Funding is available in the Countywide General Fund, non-departmental allotments.

The funding is available in the Countywide General Fund, non-departmental allotments. 

How does County staff know "funding is available" if they don't even provide a high level cost estimate for the work they want to procure? 

And what irony! The County is using taxpayer dollars to tell taxpayers in Hillsborough County how incompetently these commissioners have neglected and held hostage the funding for roads to pursue a massive $18 Billion tax for trains and transit. 

Hillsborough County is using taxpayer dollars to tell taxpayers they must support the massive tax hike referendum or else....when the County's refuses to consider alternative transportation funding solutions. 

At today's meeting County staff meekly regurgitated the above statement from the agenda item when they presented B-1 to the commissioners. No questions were asked. Hmmm... 

Before anyone could even breathe Commissioner Hagan immediately made a motion to approve and it passed unanimously. (Note Commissioners Hagan, Cohen and Commission Candidate Michael Owen have all received $1000 from HNTB's PAC.)

Voting to hire someone to do work with NO estimate for how much the County will spend is unacceptable. That is not fiscal prudence or anyway to procure any contract. 

No one in the private sector can ask their management to hire someone like the County just did without a cost estimate and much more information about what work is being paid for. They would be laughed out the door, told to come back with costs and substantive information or find another job.

Was a lightning quick vote with no questions to hide irresponsibility or intentionally not wanting to disclose today information they already have. 

For transparency, I spoke at today's meeting and asked for transparency from County staff about Agenda Item B-1. I requested County staff publicly provide the following information before any vote is taken to hire HNTB:

1.  A cost estimate for work activities the County expects to spend w/HNTB and breakdown of total estimate by how much the County wants to spend for each work activity they want HNTB to perform.
2.  What Florida Statute governs the hiring of HNTB for the work the County is hiring HNTB to do. If it’s the CCNA FL Statute 287.055 please ensure County staff cites that statute states it is for “Acquisition of professional architectural, engineering, landscape architectural, or surveying and mapping services."
3.  If it’s 287.055, what engineering or other professional services listed in the statute the County is requesting HNTB to perform.
4.  If this is not being procured under 287.055, what statute or governing process is this contract being procured under.
5. According to HNTB, their contract includes the following partners: Playbook Public Relations - a PR and marketing firm, Valerin, a marketing & communications firm, Counterpoint Messaging - a firm who engages minority voters through media and Johnson Strategies - a public affairs and strategic communications firm. Will these partners be sub-contractors of HNTB, what work activities does the County expect them to do as part of the HNTB contract and what percentage of the overall contract does the County expect these partners to perform?

Valerin's website reflects services they provide including:
From Valerin website

Counterpoint Messaging's website specifically states their "CAMPAIGN STRATEGIES" are to "WIN ELECTIONS".
From Counterpoint Messaging website

Johnson Strategies provides political consulting and the services they provide from their website includes:
We provide expert strategic consulting to clients running for office on the local, county, state, and national levels. We help to identify and target the right voter audience and ensure resources are allocated effectively. We manage: political communications, campaign strategy, polling and focus groups, and advertising campaigns 
We help identify key public officials best suited to champion our clients’ causes as we advocate on their behalf. We specialize in legislative advocacy, procurement, land zoning, and securing government funding.
We’ll create a targeted strategy to get your public-facing business, cause, or campaign the right attention. Our services include: grasstops influence, media relations, proactive pitching, content/website development, messaging development, and events planning.
We get our clients ahead of negative news, which means formulating a response that controls the message

The President of Johnson Strategies, Eric Johnson, is a partisan Democrat. He served as a top advisor to the Florida Chairman of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and has served as Political Director of the Florida Democratic Party. He has run the campaigns for many Democrat candidates including Niki Fried and Charlie Crist. 

Johnson Strategies highlight on their website they were Harry's Cohen's political consultant for his 2020 county commission campaign. They've given Cohen a $1000 for his 2022 campaign. No conflicts of interest there. 

HNTB donated $15,000 to the pro rail tax PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 when that rail tax failed miserably. HNTB was associated with Florida’s proposed High Speed Rail from Orlando to Tampa that was repealed by voters and eventually nixed.

The hiring of HNTB with their PR, political consultants and campaign strategists attached, are directly related to the November 30 year ONE PERCENT (NOT ONE CENT) $18 BILLION rail tax referendum. 

There are multiple alternative transportation funding plans that do not require any new tax hike and this is just one of them. That is why the County feels compelled to use taxpayer dollars to launch "their" public engagement aka campaign - to drown out any mention the County can fund its transportation needs within its existing budget.

Hillsborough County has already experienced the bad situation of procuring public engagement (aka campaign/advocacy) work thru an umbrella "engineering" contract.

County staff is to come back within 30 days for funding approval AFTER the County has hired HNTB. But no one can compare HNTB's costs to anyone else because there is no real bid process being used to provide comparison costs amongst multiple firms.

County staff must be transparent when they come back to request the commissioners approve taxpayer dollars to HNTB. 

The County must publicly provide specific details and costs for all the work activities the tax dollars will be spent on and who specifically (HNTB or their partners) are providing the work for each taxpayer funded work activity.

Hillsborough County must not venture down any slippery slopes with taxpayer dollars going to a third party acting on their behalf.

Keep your Eye on EyeOnTampaBay for more as we watch how this unfolds.


  1. I thought the whole point of the Open Houses that the county held prior to voting to put the tax on the ballot was to inform and raise awareness about the current state of transportation across Hillsborough County and solicit their input. This is a travesty. Hiding the campaign apparatus behind an engineering firm is sad and a way to skirt Sunshine laws. Will we be able to submit public records requests of Johnson Strategies and Valerin? Using tax dollars to create and advocate a ballot question is a violation of campaign finance laws.

  2. Not using our current tax dollars wisely to keep and improve our roads is a violation of the public!