TAMPA - Against the specter of service cuts, layoffs and lawsuits, the county's bus board began girding itself for next month's gas tax showdown. The board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HARTline) said the county commission's June 11 public hearing is its financial Rubicon." It's crunch time and June 11 is crunch day," said Maryanne Ladutko, a HARTline director. Facing a $4.5 million budget deficit next fiscal year, board members said they must find new cash or radically slash the authority.
County Administrator Dan Kleman wants the county commission to increase local gas taxes by 4 cents. HARTline would keep a penny, and the county would take responsibility for providing specialized service under federal Disabilities laws. The HARTline board unanimously ratified Kleman's plan Thursday, with one caveat. If the commission fails to bump up gas taxes, HARTline wants the county to make up the difference from general tax revenues.
When members asked what it would take to get the necessary votes,commissioner and HARTline board member Ed Turanchik quickly replied, "Political courage."
Turanchik said he's amazed people don't comprehend HARTline's woes."We have government not complying with a major federal civil right and it has barely caused a ripple," he said. "Not to meet it would be morally, legally and politically wrong." Turanchik predicted class action lawsuits and boycotts if the gas tax Proposal fails.
James Lovell, a HARTline director who is blind, said Turanchik wasn't using scare tactics. He said he has talked to a number of organizations who are poised to sue. He declined to name the groups.
"People aren't going to change unless they are forced to change. It is a shame that we [the disabled] can't get services because elected officials don't fear us," Lovell said.
Sharon Dent, HARTline's executive director, has already begun preparing For the worst. By law, HARTline must maintain a balanced budget. She said service would have to be cut by a third within three years; between 85 and 100 union, non-union and management workers would lose their jobs; and, the fleet would be reduced by 65 buses. Dent said she wasn't ready to give details of which routes were in jeopardy,but said riders would have a longer wait no matter which bus they rode.
She said that without more money, the system would end up devouring itself."We would be doing irreparable harm to this system," she said. "We might as well close the doors."