tampabay.com

Tax should assist roads too, official says

A Tampa City Council member recommends that schools and roads get a quarter-cent sales tax increase each.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER and MELANIE AVE
Published February 2, 2006


TAMPA - Roads, not just schools, could benefit from a sales tax increase, says Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena.

During today's City Council meeting, she will ask her fellow members whether they will join her to press Hillsborough County and school district officials to put a sales tax on November's ballot that would be spent on schools and roads.

Already, district officials are considering a half-cent sales tax to help close a $364-million gap in the school construction and renovation budget.

"The two largest needs we have are schools and roads," Saul-Sena said. "If we use the entire half-cent on schools, that precludes us from using that on roads."

Hillsborough County now has a 7 percent sales tax. The state consumes 6 cents, with a penny reserved for local uses.

State law allows the tax to be raised to a total of 8.5 percent, but politically, that wouldn't be possible, Saul-Sena said. Even if it's only raised a half-penny, Hillsborough's tax would be tied with four other counties for the highest in the state.

So she is recommending that schools would get about a quarter-cent and roads would get a quarter-cent tax increase.

Ron Rotella, the executive director of the Westshore Alliance, called Saul-Sena and told her about the idea, which he said makes a sales tax increase more palatable than if it were just spent on schools.

"Somebody who's stuck in traffic and doesn't have kids would wonder why roads aren't a priority," Rotella said. "That's why we should have a discussion and get everyone involved."

But getting agreement might be difficult. Hillsborough County schools chief of staff Jim Hamilton had not heard of Saul-Sena's proposal, but he said district officials would have to evaluate the specifics of it before deciding if it would be a good pairing.

"We'd have to cost it out and make a determination if it would leave us in a position to meet our needs," he said. "We can't continue to piecemeal the needs of the school district."

Before any sales tax increase could take effect, the Hillsborough County School Board would have to vote to put it on the ballot and voters would have to approve it in a referendum.

He agreed the county has significant transportation problems, which are causing school buses to run late.

The School Board has yet to decide if it will ask taxpayers for a sales tax.

School officials are studying how much money could be raised by a half-cent sales tax, how long the tax should be levied and what projects it would fund. Last year, district officials estimated a sales tax would raise about $80-million a year.

As for the county, no one is even talking about the possibility of using a sales tax increase for future needs said Eric Johnson, director of management and budget.

"Is there an option for a sales tax increase for roads and schools?" Johnson said. "Yes. Is it an option the commissioners are exploring? No."