Monday, June 20, 2022

Danger Zone Again! Hillsborough County Hands HNTB $700K For Taxpayer Funded PR Campaign Supporting Contentious Political Issue - $18 Billion Rail Tax Referendum

Hillsborough County - you have a problem!

At the June 15th BOCC meeting Hillsborough County staff recommended handing $700K to engineering firm HNTB for a taxpayer funded PR campaign in support of the $18 Billion rail tax on the November ballot. 

The County knows they are treading on very thin ice launching a publicly financed campaign for a political issue - the monster rail tax referendum. 

To cover for this wasteful and abusive use of taxpayer dollars, County staff was forced to repeatedly state at the June 15th meeting the County will comply with State law. County staff was even compelled to state they will have to continuously check with the County Attorney to ensure they are complying with State law. 

This is the same County Attorney who did not warn county commissioners the 2018 All for Transportation (AFT) rail tax had legal issues. The County still owes taxpayers a refund of $562 MILLION of illegal AFT tax dollars unlawfully collected.

The same Tampa Centric 5 Democrat commissioners who put the $18 Billion rail tax on the ballot - Kimberly Overman, Mariella Smith, Pat Kemp, Gwen Myers and Harry Cohen - voted yes for this unethical use of tax dollars for a political issue. 

Commissioner White voted no and Commissioner Hagan, who had just spoken on the previous agenda item, was suddenly nowhere to be found and did not vote. 

HNTB has given $1000 to the 2022 campaigns of Commissioners Hagan, Myers, Cohen and candidate Michael Owen. HNTB gave $15K to the pro rail tax PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010.  

The $18 Billion rail tax is a boondoggle that cannot be sold on its merits because it forces taxpayers in unincorporated Hillsborough to pay for costly rail and transit in the city of Tampa. The majority of the money will be spent in the city of Tampa and unincorporated Hillsborough will not get the new auto-lane capacity they desperately need. 

The transportation "Open Houses" the County held earlier this year that taxpayers already paid for were a flop. They flopped because the County got caught misleading the public. 

Now the County is hiring highly paid PR, campaign Messaging experts and Political Consultants - hiding behind engineering firm HNTB - to "message" support for the $18 Billion rail tax. Why?

Because Hillsborough County can fund its transportation needs within its existing revenue sources. The County has a spending problem not a revenue problem. HNTB's $700K could be better used on road improvements.

HNTB's $700K taxpayer funded campaign will be used to persuade Hillsborough County voters to pass an unnecessary monster $18 Billion rail tax. The publicly financed campaign will be exploited to tell the public the tax is necessary to reduce congestion and fix the roads - the same false narratives the All for Transportation PAC used in 2018.

However, hiring HNTB to front a campaign for a political issue, a tax hike referendum puts Hillsborough County in another danger zone. Even the Tampa Bay Times called this a Campaign for the Transportation Tax

Hiring HNTB "educate" those who live in Hillsborough County about the state of transportation in the County is a farce. Everyone already knows because they see and use it everyday.

Real education requires hearing all sides of the issue. No matter what HNTB bombards the public with about so-called "transportation needs', the County has existing revenue sources to pay for them. HNTB's campaign will not allow such information to be provided to the public - it is intended to shut down those who do not toe the County's narratives. 

Hiring engineering firm HNTB for campaign work is flagrantly abusing Florida Statute 287.055 also known as the Consultants' Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA) which governs procuring PROFESSIONAL engineering services for work requiring LICENSED PE's. The CCNA process allows the County to procure a list of PROFESSIONAL engineering "preferred vendors" they can issue a work order to (instead of full blown RFP) for mostly smaller work tasks and/or emergencies needing to be addressed quickly. 

Last November 35 engineering firms responded to the County's bid for CCNA contract #21444 titled: Transportation Design and General Engineering Services. Seven PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERING firms were selected: AECOM, B&N, Kimberly-Horn, HDR, HNTB, HW Lochner and WSP, formerly known as Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

Remember the abusive 2016 $1.35 MILLION Go Hillsborough crony scandal that ended up with a law enforcement investigation? That was Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

This taxpayer funded campaign is more flagrant and egregious than the scandalous 2016 Parsons Brinckerhoff/Go Hillsborough debacle because the $18 Billion rail tax is on the November ballot. The tax hike referendum is officially a political issue. In 2016 the rail tax never made the ballot. 

The actions by the County/Tampa Centric 5 commissioners related to the monster rail tax are orchestrated and intentional.

  • On March 25, 2022, the Tampa Centric 5 voted to schedule a public hearing on April 20, 2022 to put the $18 Billion rail tax referendum on the November ballot.
  • On April 11, 2022 before the referendum public hearing was even held, Assistant County Administrator John Lyons issued the solicitation letter below to the 7 CCNA engineering firms to develop and execute a publicly financed campaign. Lyons stated the work was "predicated" on the commissioners putting the rail tax boondoggle on the ballot. He obviously knew the Tampa Centric 5 Democrats would put the $18 Billion rail tax on the ballot at the April 20th public hearing.

Lyons solicitation letter sent before 
referendum public hearing (click to enlarge) 

  • On May 4th, with no prior public discussion about the campaign work, staff recommends hiring HNTB. No mention was made of any other firm who responded. We now know that only one other firm of the 7 solicited besides HNTB responded - that was Kimberly-Horne. There was no public discussion or reason presented why HNTB was selected.

HNTB's $700K campaign includes these marketing and PR partners in tow: 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 partisan Democrat public affairs and strategic communications firm.

HNTB does not identify any of these PR, Marketing, Messaging or Political Consulting partners they will use in this taxpayer funded "campaign" as part of their CCNA contract team. 
HNTB CCNA Contract Team 

The CCNA process is to procure Engineering services requiring licensed PE's. That is why PR, Campaign and Political Consultants were not part of HNTB's CCNA contract team. Can HNTB add these PR partners to a Work Order issued thru a contract that never included them?

While public outreach may occur as part of a SPECIFIC engineering project, CCNA is NOT intended to publicly fund a "Campaign" associated with a political issue such as a tax hike referendum.

Scroll thru the county commission's June 16th BOCC Agenda Item B-2 to find the labor cost estimates for this taxpayer funded campaign. The's campaign's highest paid person is John Rowley, the CEO and Founder of CounterPoint Messaging at $400 an hour. This is abusive use of taxpayer money.

CounterPoint Messaging is a partisan organization and a list of their clients can be found here. They include Unions, Sierra Club, ProgressNow,, DSCC, DCCC, Beta O'Rourke, Annette Taddeo, Tim Ryan, Rick Kriseman and many others.

HNTB's partner Johnson Strategies is a partisan political consulting firm who provided political consulting for Democrat Harry Cohen's County Commission race and many other Democrats. Is there a conflict of interest?

Democrat Harry Cohen was
client of Johnson Strategies

Johnson Strategies website touts their 30 YEARS OF POLITICAL EXPERTISE and they serve as political advisors and media consultants for clients seeking election and reelection at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as managing statewide ballot initiatives. Johnson Strategies President, Eric J. Johnson was 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.

Hillsborough County is using engineering firm HNTB to front their publicly funded $18 Billion rail tax PR campaign. This campaign will use GIS data to use targeted messaging for specific demographics throughout different parts of Hillsborough. 

Since the rail tax cannot be sold on its merits, we expect the same "false" narratives that All for Transportation used in 2018. This time the County is using YOUR tax dollars to fund the pro rail tax campaign that Jeff Vinik, the wealthy downtown special interests and the AFT PAC funded in 2018.

However, County staff and bureaucrats cannot engage in political activity. The County cannot use tax dollars to publicly fund "Campaign" activities occurring only because they are "predicated" on a political issue - an $18 Billion rail tax referendum. 

It's up to the Tampa Centric 5 Democrats who put this monster rail tax on the ballot and any other elected officials who support it to campaign to sell it. It's up to privately funded organizations and political action committees (PACs) who support the rail tax to campaign to sell it. 

HNTB's PR, Marketing, Messaging and Political consulting firms should be hired by the pro rail tax PAC or private organizations who support the rail tax not the County. 

Hillsborough County is abusing the CCNA Act by using tax dollars on a campaign associated with a political issue. The County is abusing the taxpayers forced to pay for it.

The 2016 Go Hillsborough debacle began with a $500K Work Order issued to Parsons Brinckerhoff that ended up costing taxpayers $1.35 MILLION. The County can up the cost of HNTB's $700K Work Order very easily.

At the least, this campaign paid for by YOUR tax dollars is unethical. And the County is walking a thin tightrope while leaning far over the rope trying to skirt Florida electioneering laws. They know they are in a danger zone as evidenced by staff repeatedly claiming they are complying with state law.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck - it's a duck. 

This duck is an egregious publicly financed GOTV campaign for a political issue - a tax hike referendum to unnecessarily take $18 Billion more out of taxpayers wallets - masquerading as "education". 

Unethical, unscrupulous and unconscionable! 


  1. These studies are the biggest bs. Anyone can do them with population projection data.

  2. Thanks Sharon! I just shared on my FB page! Most people I talk to don’t realize that the county commission still owes us over $560 million from the last tax increase and wants to screw us yet again!