Passenger traffic way up at SRQ, but with growth comes growing pains

November 23, 2018 09:19 AM

Updated November 23, 2018 09:19 AM

Hurricane Michael toppled 80 percent of its trees. Now Florida Caverns State Park digs out

Tori Schneider, Tallahassee Democrat
Published 1:40 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2018

 

The busy season had just finished at Florida Caverns State Park when Hurricane Michael hit.

An estimated 140,000 people visit from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year.

Whether or not those numbers will hold steady in 2019 will depend on how well the park recovers from the damage done by Oct. 10 Category 4 hurricane that ravaged the park and a large swath of the Panhandle into southern Georgia.

Eighty to 90 percent of the trees covering the 1,500-acre Marianna attraction were lost.

“The storm was the likes we’ve never seen before,” said Park Manager Jacob Strickland.  “We have done a very limited assessment on the cave at this point. Of course, most of the trees that were above the cave, a lot of them have come down. There is a possibility that there could be (new entrances into the cave) but that is unknown at this point.”

Nearly every building, a total of more than two dozen, including barbecue pits, restrooms, pavilions and resident park employee housing sustained damage.

Perhaps the most important building, the Visitors Center, was largely spared by the storm and came out on the other side with merely a few broken windows. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression along with others on the property including three residences.

“The historic buildings that the CCC built definitely showcased their strength in their construction because there was very little damage to those buildings,” said Strickland.

What the Florida midterms tell us about paying for our economic priorities

Traffic backs up on I-275 in Malfunction Junction in Tampa. Times files.

 

There’s a lot to unpack from the midterms.

Will the recounts change the outcome of any of the statewide races?

Can polling find a better model, one that predicts the actual winners?

Will felons who have served their sentences really get their voting rights back?

I’ll leave those to the political experts. Instead, I’m getting my head around what the results tell us about our economic priorities and how we want to pay for them.

Here are three takeaways:

1. For now, we’re okay with taxing ourselves.

Pasco County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of three separate property taxes increases to improve parks, libraries and fire rescue stations. They also narrowly passed a fourth increase to pay for a jail expansion. Total cost: $241 million.

In Hillsborough, voters passed two additions to the sales tax — an extra half cent for schools and a full cent for transportation. That raises the sales tax to 8.5 percent, the highest of any county in the state.

The transportation victory comes after several failed attempts to raise funds for rail and transit in the Tampa Bay area, including a similar effort in 2010 soundly rejected by Hillsborough voters and the disastrous Greenlight Pinellas campaign in 2014.

It’s a good time to vote on a tax increase. The economy is chugging along. Unemployment is low. Consumers remain fairly confident about the future.

Kyle Simon, 34, who lives in Palma Ceia, said he would have voted in favor of the tax increase anyway, but it certainly helps that people have more money in their pockets.

“It takes the sting out of voting for it,” he said.

The sales tax passed, in part, because residents experience the transportation problems for themselves, not as some far off problem, said Tampa Heights resident Rick Fernandez, who voted for the increase. They get snarled in traffic or can’t walk safely to where they want to go.

“We need it and we weren’t getting it done,” said Fernandez, 63, who was a registered Republican until 2016, when he switched to be a Democrat. “So eventually people power takes over where the elected officials are failing you.”

2. But we aren’t so fond of Tallahassee politicians taxing us.

Voters easily passed Amendment 5, which will require the Legislature to muster a two-thirds super-majority if it wants to impose, approve or raise state taxes or fees. Blocking proposed tax hikes will be much easier now. The amendment does not apply to local fees or taxes, such as funding for schools.

Voting for local tax increases, and at the same time making it harder for the state to levy taxes, makes sense. Traditionally, voters have been more likely to support tax increases if they have a clear grasp of what the money will pay for and that it stays close to home. We don’t like far-away politicians spending our taxes on things we never see or don’t understand.

3. Enough of us were feeling bullish to forgo a tax break.

Amendment 1 would have increased the homestead exemption by an additional $25,000, saving many homeowners about $200 to $350 a year depending on the value of their home and where they live. Of the 12 proposed constitutional amendments, it is the only one that failed.

Now, most voters — 58 percent — favored the amendment. It was popular, just not popular enough to get over the required 60 percent threshold.

The amendment language was a bit confusing, which likely didn’t help. Many voters, however, appeared to heed the cries of local officials, who said they might have to cut services or raise rates to make up for lost revenue.

Fernandez said he wasn’t tempted by the tax break.

“It felt like we would be starving local governments, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “… I love Tampa and I am willing to pay the little extra that is being asked of me to allow the area to thrive and grow.”

The results show he isn’t alone.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

Hillsborough transportation tax: What you need to know

 

WHAT DOES THE BALLOT INITIATIVE DO?

  • Here’s the question on the ballot for County Referendum No. 2: “Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Town ‘n’ Country, and Sun City, including projects that: Improve roads and bridges, Expand public transit options, Fix potholes, Enhance bus services, Relieve rush hour bottlenecks, Improve intersections, and Make walking and biking safer, By amending the County Charter to enact a one-cent sales surtax levied for 30 years and deposited in an audited trust fund with independent oversight? A new 1% sales surtax is in addition to the current 7% sales tax and is estimated to raise $276 million annually and $552 million the first two calendar years. Revenues will be shared by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART); Metropolitan Planning Organization; and, using a population-based formula, by Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, City of Tampa, Plant City, and City of Temple Terrace. Expenditures will be governed by the Charter Amendment.”
  • Most of the money — 54 percent — would be earmarked for roads, sidewalks and trails. About 45 percent would go to bus and transit. Here are highlights of how the tax proceeds would be used: resurface Tampa’s roads every 25 years instead of every 75 years; build a mass-transit system linking the university area, downtown Tampa and the Westshore-Tampa International Airport area; round out a planned network of 400 miles of bike and pedestrian trails; add 10 new routes, 150 new buses and increase the frequency of at least four bus routes to every 15 minutes; plug roughly 500 miles of sidewalk gaps on roads in unincorporated Hillsborough; and make intersection improvements throughout the county, including the addition of intelligent traffic signals that adjust to real-time traffic flow. For a household with an income that’s average for the county, around $55,000, the proposal would mean an extra $120 per year in taxes, according to a sales tax calculator developed by the Internal Revenue Service.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Transportation officials say no one has come up with a way to pay for hundreds of pressing transportation needs amounting to some $9 billion. To address this, a citizens group backed by business leaders including Jeff Vinik gathered the signatures necessary to put a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. Other backers include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and major local employers. No opposition to the measure surfaced until three weeks before the election, when a tea party-affiliated group that successfully fought transportation ballot measures before in the Tampa Bay area organized a political action committee. Among its arguments, the group says the increase would help make Hillsborough’s the state’s highest sales tax and is unnecessary because county commissioners re-prioritized $800 million of existing revenue for transportation over 10 years that, combined with gas taxes, will fund needed maintenance and safety issues. The local NAACP also opposes the hike, saying it’s a burden on poor people. All for Transportation, the group advocating the tax increase, said the $800 million doesn’t come close to answering current transportation needs or  those that will be created by a Hillsborough population increase projected at 700,000 in the next 30 years. If the measure passes, it would amend the county charter to increase the sales tax by 1 percent and would create a 13-member citizen oversight committee to make sure local governments spend the funds as intended.