“Obviously, no one’s against electric buses,” commissioner Sandy Murman said.
But uneasiness over the lawsuit gave the board pause, even for an idea that seemed to have broad support.
“All that sounds great,” Commissioner Ken Hagan said of the buses. “Do we have any financial risk with this item?”
The uncertainty is expected to linger for at least a couple of more months. A summary judgment hearing is scheduled for May, though the case could be resolved by then. If not, a judge likely won’t issue a ruling until June.
White repeatedly has said the lawsuit is not a political move and added Thursday that he had no intent to halt decisionmaking. He said his goal is to ensure the county charter is in line with Florida law.
While resolving that question is taking longer than he had hoped, White said the time invested is worth it to settle concerns. Considering the large scope of transportation issues that Hillsborough leaders have struggled with for decades, half a year “is not going to be a big difference-maker,” he said.
“If it takes six months to determine whether or not this charter amendment meets the letter of the law, to me, that’s well worth it and time well-spent,” White said.
But that wait is tying up projects that otherwise would move forward. Jeff Seward, interim CEO of the county’s bus agency, said the lawsuit caused him to withdraw a recommendation to buy 30 buses that would improve service for about 1.5 million riders.
The buses would have allowed the agency to increase frequency on six routes around the county, allowing buses to run every 15 minutes instead of on the half hour.
“I was ready to pull the trigger on those 30 buses and was actually pretty excited about it because we’ve never ordered that many buses at one time ever,” Seward said. “(The lawsuit) has absolutely slowed our ability to do anything servicewise to a complete standstill.”
While he does not think the lawsuit will overturn the tax, it could alter when agencies receive the money. And Seward said he doesn’t want to order the new buses without the money in hand.
“It could be six months, it could be however long,” he said. “I’m just not willing to take that risk.”
Stetson University College of Law professor Charles Rose called it an uncommon set of circumstances, when a commissioner is suing about the constitutionality of a county charter.
White’s lawsuit shouldn’t stop the collection of the tax, Rose said, but each entity that would receive a portion of the money has to assess whether it can safely budget for the revenue.
Rose said if he was legal counsel for the county or another agency, he would advise leaders to make their decisions assuming the money won’t come through. Spending it at the end of the year is more fiscally responsible than having to return it, he said.
The “very fiscally conservative” approach would be different if the case involved private individuals who don’t have a responsibility to anyone other than themselves, Rose said. Those individuals would be bound only by an injunction or a legal requirement.
But it’s different for a government agency that answers to taxpayers.
“It really is about uncertainty,” said Christina Barker, spokeswoman for All For Transportation, the group that put the sales tax on the ballot. “I really do believe if this (lawsuit) wasn’t there, they would have moved forward with things. They have shown they are ready to get stuff done.”
Hillsborough officials are hesitant to invest in transportation upgrades, such as electric buses.