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Hillsborough schools urge commissioners to maintain district's sales tax funds

Man in suit speaks at a microphone. A number of men wearing uniforms sit behind him.
Hillsborough County Commissioners
Hillsborough Public Schools superintendent Van Ayres told commissioners on March 6, 2024, that the district still needs Community Investment Tax funds.

The Community Investment Tax (CIT) has funded schools since 1996, but county commissioners are debating whether to keep the district in its tax plan.

The half-cent sales tax — the Community Investment Tax — has been funding Hillsborough County projects, as well as the school board, since its inception in 1996.

The 30-year tax is set to expire in 2026, so the Board of County Commissioners have been working on a renewed plan that would have to be approved by voters this November.

But the county is considering either scaling back, or cutting out entirely, the school district's portion of the tax.

In the last 28 years, the school has received more than $655 million from CIT proceeds that have gone towards various projects including new schools, renovations, buses and other maintenance issues.

"We're a growing district and this Community Investment Tax has been vital to our growth and to our success," Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent Van Ayres told commissioners Wednesday.

The tax has generated about $2.3 billion in total. According to the county, about 20% of the funds come from visitors.

Other projects funded by the CIT include Raymond James Stadium, fire station construction and repairs, road infrastructure and other facilities and construction.

Some board members said they are reluctant to continue funding the school board with CIT money because the district is already proposing a separate tax — a 1 millage increase in property tax — that could go on November's ballot as well.

"For me, it's a tough spot to be in to tell the taxpayers of Hillsborough County, 'Hey, support a millage increase and, by the way, we're gonna keep funding on the CIT side,'" said district four commissioner Michael Owen.

But Ayres explained that each tax would be going into different funding buckets.

The proposed millage increase — which the school board still has yet to vote on — would go towards school operations. That, in large part, includes teacher and staff raises along with some program expansions. Ayres said the millage is necessary to raise wages and compete with surrounding school districts that already levy a similar tax.

Money from the CIT funds capital projects such as school construction and other improvements. After accounting for impact fees — another source of capital revenue — about $244 million is still needed to stay on the projected schedule, said Ayres.

That's where CIT comes in.

"You can see with all the development that's occurring in Hillsborough County, these are our future needs as we look to build schools over the next seven years," said Ayres.

Projects on the list include the Plant City Career Center and schools in Plant City and Wimauma.

graph showing capital funding in Hillsborough county
Hillsborough County Public Schools
Hillsborough's taxable land value is less than some smaller counties, but the student population continues to grow. The superintendent presented this slide at a school board workshop in February.

Ayres went on to point out that Hillsborough County "does not sit on a level playing field" with other districts when it comes to property tax revenue.

"We are a property poor, student rich school district," said Ayres, "meaning the number of dollars we receive for capital ... does not reach even the statewide average."

Hillsborough has about $174 billion in taxable land value, a smaller value than that of Orange and Palm Beach counties, which both have a smaller student population.

Still, Owen pushed back, saying that "we can't just keep going back to the voters and to the taxpayers. Another thing to really keep in mind is how high of a tax county we are."

The board voted for the county attorney to draft an ordinance that would place the CIT renewal on November's ballot. Commissioners will further discuss funding distributions at their next meeting on April 3.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.