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Official: Road woes bigger than budget

Spending 15 percent of the county budget on transportation is not feasible, commissioners are told.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published November 6, 2003

TAMPA - Last month, Hillsborough County Commission chairman Tom Scott asked how a dramatic increase in spending on transportation would affect the annual budget.

On Wednesday, he got his answer.

It would require taking a meat clever to major programs combined with a Herculean effort to shift funds, according to a report from the county's management and budget office.

"That does not appear to be doable under any circumstances," said county budget director Eric Johnson, who addressed the issue at Wednesday's commission meeting.

Spending 15 percent of the $3-billion annual budget on transportation would mean shifting an additional $300-million.

The 2004 budget calls for $140-million for transportation, or 4.7 percent of the total budget.

About two-thirds of the budget cannot legally be redirected to transportation. Culling the money from the remaining chunk could devastate a host of programs.

Johnson outlined some broad options, including reassessing how to spend some new tax revenue earmarked for fire rescue and committing a significant amount of future Community Investment Tax allocations to transportation.

Acknowledging the futility in trying to re-allocate such a large amount of revenue, Johnson did not outline specific cuts in his report, stating "that would inevitably panic a large number of constituencies unnecessarily."

"I would still like to live in this community," he joked with the commissioners.

Commissioners have been meeting for months to discuss ways to alleviate worsening traffic congestion in the county.

A proposal to increase sales tax and construction fees to finance road work and new bus routes hit a dead end last month when commissioners voted it down 5-2. That left Scott, who initiated the effort, "frustrated" and "disappointed."

Two days later, Scott asked the budget department to look into the impact of spending 15 to 20 percent of the budget on transportation.

On Wednesday, he complimented Johnson's report and repeated his contention that the county must address its transportation woes, even if it's not to the tune of 15 percent of the budget.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of holding a workshop on the question. They asked the staff to report on the impact of raising a more modest sum of $58-million for transportation, perhaps less, by increasing gas taxes, communications taxes on services such as cell phones and cable television, and impact fees.

They also voted to request a written answer from the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace about whether they support a gas tax.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has touted a referendum that increases transportation spending through an increase in the sales tax, gas tax, impact fees, or a combination of all three.

The commission also wanted the staff to provide more information on the money lost by exempting some areas from impact fees.

Commissioners currently charge impact fees on new development throughout the county to raise money for the future costs of water lines, sewer pipes and roadway widenings they are likely to cause. But they exempt a half-dozen areas of the county generally considered economically blighted, in an effort to encourage new development there.

Commissioner Pat Frank said it was "absolutely ludicrous" to consider an increase in the gas tax if the county continues to exempt areas from impact fees.

- Graham Brink can be reached at 813 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 6, 2003, 03:47:10]


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