The Plant City Economic Development Corp. and local Chamber of Commerce have thrown their support behind the latest version of a sales tax referendum to meet Hillsborough County’s transportation needs.
In a May 16 letter to the Hillsborough County Commission, which was read at the commission board meeting on Wednesday, Plant City EDC President and CEO Jake Austin, wrote: “Our committee strongly supports a vote that would put a referendum on the ballot to allow voters to decide on the recent transportation proposal.”
The letter went on to say the Plant City EDC executive committee “believes that without moving this initiative forward, we are severely crippling our ability to retain and recruit the companies that offer jobs to our citizens.”
Despite the recent defeat of the Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax initiative, the Hillsborough commissioners recently voted 5 to 2 to hold a public hearing on a 15-year version of the sales tax.
This latest sales tax proposal, which was moved for a vote by board chairman Les Miller, is half the time period of the Go Hillsborough initiative that was narrowly defeated April 27 in a 4-3 vote.
In a phone interview, Austin said there road projects that would be adversely affected if the funding proposal — such as the half-cent sales for 15 years — fails. The roads in Plant City are in poor condition, he said.
"We are quite a few decades behind in this work," he said. Austin added that without the sales tax, Plant City would have to consider raising property taxes to fund the roadwork.
"I commend the commissioners for wanting to the best," Austin continued. "I know they are really hesitant to pus something forward that might be shot down. That's a difficult position to be in."
Among the most important projects that Plant City is pursuing is the street-scaping and lane reconfiguration at South Collins Street from Merrick Street to East Laura Street at an estimated cost of $700,000.
Several projects have estimated price tags of at least $2 million, including the expansion from two lanes to four lanes at West Sam Allen Road ($2.4 million); intersection improvements at Alexander Street and James L. Redman Parkway SR 39 ($2 million); a study on the extension of Rice Road (more than $3.7 million); and an extension of East Sam Allen Road as well as its expansion from two lands to four ($4.5 million).
In regards to the East Sam Allen project, Austin's letter said: "This area of the city is anticipated to have approximately 30,000 new homes in the next 30 to 40 years according to the Northeast Plant City Master Plan."
Yvonne Fry, chair-elect of the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, said her group will be sending a letter to the Hillsborough County Commission supporting the referendum for a 15-year sales tax to fund transportation. The road resurfacing in Plant City "is so far behind," she said, adding that it is a safety issue.
"We're in desperate times in Plant City," she said. Fry said the two Plant City groups are committed to conducting educational outreach on this latest initiative.
At a recent commission workshop on transportation, an impact report was presented that looked at other funding options, or whether to modify the list of transportation projects that cost an estimated $906 million or move money around in the county budget that could result in hundreds of job losses.
Sales tax plans to fund transportation have proved unpopular in the past. In November 2014, the Greenlight Pinellas penny sales tax initiative was defeated. And in 2010, a referendum to fund a rail-focused transit system also failed.