A number of hurdles must be cleared in quick succession if a property tax referendum to rebuild the Friendship TrailBridge is to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Despite the ticking clock, however, Hillsborough County commissioners decided today against directing the county attorney to start drafting language for the ballot question.
"I believe we're rushing into something," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, "and when you rush into something, you know what happens – failure looms."
Murman made her comments at a two-hour budget workshop. In other business at the meeting, commissioners heard a plea from Clerk of Circuit Court Pat Frank to fund one-time bonuses of $1,200 for court employees.
Commissioners are considering putting an $80 million bond issue on the November ballot. The bonds would be paid off with a property tax increase of $25 a year for a house valued at $165,000.
The money would be used to rebuild the deteriorating Friendship TrailBridge into a linear park connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, as well as for a number of parks and recreation projects.
But commissioners must first hold a public hearing Aug. 18 on the proposed tax, and send the ballot language to the Supervisor of Elections Office in early September. That means they likely will decide next Thursday whether to have the county attorney draft the ballot language.
Commissioner Mark Sharp suggested getting started on the ballot language right away. Sharp, who supported a sales tax referendum for transportation in 2010, said the commission waited too long in that case to draft language. The measure failed.
"It was a real problem," Sharp said. "We could never get the approval to move forward with the language, and when we did there were a lot of arguments over whose language we were going to use."
But Murman and other commissioners said they wanted more time to review the list of parks and recreation projects that would be funded by the bond issue. They include upgrades at recreation centers around the county, land acquisition and engineering for the next phase of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, and a $15 million soccer complex.
The projects and the tax will be discussed further at the commission's Tuesday budget reconciliation workshop. At that meeting, the commission will set property tax rates for the coming year, but those rates could change if the bond issue makes it to the ballot and voters approve it.
In other business, Frank told commissioners it wasn't fair that some of her employees are getting a one-time salary adjustment of $1,200, while others are not.
County Administrator Mike Merrill, in his 2013 budget, proposes the one-time pay hike for county employees, including 286 who work for Frank on county commission functions such as payroll and keeping minutes.
The remaining 501 clerk of court employees who work with state court services wouldn't get the pay adjustment under Merrill's proposal. Frank pointed out that the excluded workers are county, not state, employees.
"It raises questions of fairness and equity," Frank said.
It would cost $762,955 to extend the salary benefit to the court employees, but Frank said it could come out of $1.1 million she will be returning to the commission at the end of the budget year, Sept. 30.
The clerk, an independent official elected by voters, cannot by law carry a surplus at the end of the year. The extra money came in part from an insurance refund the county gave the clerk's office. The rest came from cuts to the clerk's budget, Frank said.
Commissioners will consider the clerk's request at the Tuesday meeting.