Dueling Pinellas groups argue transit sales tax in the rain

05/28/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Greenlight Pinellas, transit, buses, bus rapid transit, Transportation, Pinellas County, No Tax for Tracks


A Greenlight Pinellas supporter carries a sign along Belcher Road at the intersection of Bryan Dairy surrounded by opposing signs.

photo by Janelle Irwin

The duel between pro-transit and anti-rail groups in Pinellas County is heating up ahead of November’s referendum. At issue, whether or not to hike sales tax by a penny to fund transit improvements including a cross-county passenger rail line. In demonstrations at the intersection of Bryan Dairy and Belcher Road Tuesday evening Groups were evenly split at about a dozen apiece. Shannon Evans carried a Greenlight Pinellas sign while holding her nine-month old son.

“It’s the only way to get to work. It’s the only way to get to school. What other choices are there? I mean, I have a baby. I don’t have the extra income right now to be driving. I have a car, but it’s just too expensive.”

The Greenlight Pinellas initiative would replace the current property taxes funding public transportation in the county with increased sales tax. Transit revenue is expected to climb from $30 million a year to about $130 million. But opponents of the measure like Betsi Bergess argue the shift in cost would hurt people who are the most strapped in a still recovering economy.

“People on fixed incomes, the elderly, young students that have unbelievable, oppressive loans that they’re trying to pay, young families – they don’t even know this is coming. They have not been paying toward this paying PSTA supplement. Now they will be.”

Even people in favor of the referendum agree – sales tax is typically regressive. But Jack Cone, a Greenlight Pinellas supporter, says critics hide behind that argument instead of saying what they really think.

“They just don’t want any change at all. Anything that goes on in this county, they will come out of the woodwork for any change at all. This is ridiculous. This is a penny tax. It won’t affect the groceries. It doesn’t affect your pharmacy. A penny tax doesn’t really affect them that much. A penny tax is not going to change your mind on what item you’re going to buy.”

And supporters also argue the sales tax would include a tax base not currently tapped by transit funding – tourists. Frank Lupo says the change is necessary.

“I mean, if it was an even swap there’d be no reason to do it. We need more money to expand bus service. We need ore money for passenger rail. And it’s spread across so many people that 1/3 of people who pay the tax are visitors to the county. They’re not even residents.”

Pro-transit activists chose the Largo corner because it is one of several intersections that would see bus services severely cut if the transit referendum fails in November. Kevin Thurman is the executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a group that has endorsed Greenlight. He says most stops would just suffer cuts to service with buses running less frequently, but the Bryan Dairy and Belcher stops would go away completely.

“So, everybody who works at the school district here that takes the bus to work, everybody who works at Raytheon who takes the bus to work, they wouldn’t have a way to get to work tomorrow.”

But activists with the grassroots group No Tax for Tracks say they’re not looking to slash bus service. Instead volunteers like Burgess just want the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to be leaner.

“What we’re asking them to do is to take a hard look at where there is opportunity for savings, but that we want to see a very efficient and effective bus system. We are for the buses. We have been all along.”

But Greenlight Pinellas supporters argue the anti-tax group has already called for immediate cuts to PSTA that would directly affect frequency of service on bus routes. They also claim the group supports privatizing the system – a claim No Tax for Tracks and Burgess deny.

“There are many cities throughout the world who have private bus systems, but I don’t know of any plan to have it privatized here.”

The group has alleged PSTA is a failed steward of taxpayer dollars. Supporters point to a lavish headquarters they call the Taj Mahal of public transportation. There’s also reference on No Tax for Tracks’ website to a Florida Department investigation into $800,000 in PSTA spending advocating for the Greenlight Pinellas plan. Barbara Haseldon is a spokesperson for No Tax for Tracks.

“Because of the outrage of the waste of money on things like ink pens and necklaces in order to promote this.”

Efforts to raise support for the referendum kicked off among supporters before the issue was even approved to be on the ballot. Early on Pinellas County Commissioners approved ballot language with only one person voting against it. Polling numbers showed strong support in the early days of Greenlight. But now, the gap seems to be shrinking. A poll commissioned by SaintPetersblog in April showed just 29% of likely voters supporting the plan with more than 40% opposing it. Greenlight fans say that poll was skewed, but Haseldon with No Tax for Tracks says it shows people don’t want the tax hike.

“So many people that are engaged in the campaign, they feel very strongly about it. So, I would say we’re just organized. We can organize very quickly. We have, like, a rapid response team.”

Tuesday’s rally was organized by Greenlight supporters who came out despite rain. They were quickly matched by No Tax for Tracks volunteers. The two groups started out on separate corners, but eventually spread to all four at the busy intersection. At times they argued over the merits of PSTA’s sales tax ask. The referendum will be on the ballot on November 4.

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