Protesters demand Hillsborough County transportation tax refund

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Several dozen people gathered outside the Hillsborough County Center building Wednesday to protest the transportation sales tax.

Protesters with the group Fix Our Roads First, joined by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White (District 4), demanded the county come up with a better process to refund more than $500 million collected in two-plus years since voters passed the now-invalid tax.

“There’s two ways that are probably most effective,” said Tom Gaitens, a Hillsborough GOP state committeeman who spoke at the protest. “One is a direct check — from the money, it’s roughly about $350 to $365 per person — or a sales tax holiday, which allows everybody to do their natural commerce within our community and pay 1% less until the $500+ million is evaporated.”

County officials have proposed a process whereby taxpayers can submit sales receipts to get a refund.

“It’s my understanding that for 120 days, there will be an opportunity for a citizen to apply for reimbursement of the taxes they paid,” said Hillsborough County Commission Vice Chair Kimberly Overman (District 7-Countywide). “The judges would actually rule and develop a court order and send it to the clerk for payment.”

Overman and several other county commissioners support the tax and the payment directives funded by it, specified in a 2018 referendum by the non-profit group All for Transportation.

Commissioner White does not — he filed a lawsuit to stop the tax shortly after it was passed by 57% of voters.

In February, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion in that case, ruling the 1-cent sales tax was unconstitutional because voters gave AFT the power to spend the tax revenue in the manner it specified, rather than county commissioners.

“…the voters approved both a transportation surtax and elaborate directives for allocating the tax proceeds. But the spending directives are unconstitutional in that they conflict with a state law that gives the county commission the authority to allocate such funds. Because it cannot reasonably be said that the voters would have approved the tax without the accompanying spending plan, we must strike the charter amendment in its entirety.”

Florida Supreme Court opinion, Stacy White vs. Hillsborough County, February 25, 2021

During the interview between 8 On Your Side and Overman on Morgan Street near County Center, one of the protesters became very upset and began recording the interview herself.

“Commissioner Overman wants to steal the money from the people of Hillsborough County,” said Vanessa Anderson, the president of the New Tampa Republican Club, into her phone camera. “She’s here telling the media that she wants to take your money and not give it back.”

“How dare you?!” Anderson yelled as she turned the phone camera towards Overman. “Why are you trying to make it difficult? It was easy for you to take our money, but now when we are asking for it back, you wanna be difficult about it. How dare you?! How dare you?!”

Overman told 8 On Your Side she didn’t believe the process was too difficult.

“When we make rental payments for people that can’t pay their rent, they submit a great deal to prove that they have to pay their rent,” Overman said. “I don’t know why this would be any different.”

Christina Barker, the co-founder of All for Transportation, issued a statement Wednesday supporting the process by which taxpayers can be refunded.

“Hillsborough County is doing the right thing by preparing a fair and expedient refund process. This will help prevent a class action lawsuit which would only lead to large payouts to attorneys and zero benefit to the community. 

We fully expect all unclaimed dollars to be spent as voters intended – funding road, safety, and transit improvements throughout the county. There is absolutely no justification for spending them any other way.”

Christina Barker, co-founder of All for Transportation

Commissioner Overman told 8 On Your Side the process doesn’t address what to do with any leftover money after taxpayers who want a refund have been reimbursed.

Commissioner White said a class action lawsuit on behalf of people frustrated with the refund process is still possible.

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