Pinellas and Hillsborough want to further study transit merger

12/11/12 Janelle Irwin
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Officials for transit authorities in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties are considering merging the two systems to save money. Both PSTA and HART boards plan to ask the Florida legislature to fund a detailed study of the savings that would result from combining staff resources.

PSTA and HART already split the cost of a preliminary state-mandated coordination study. The boards will vote on a final list of recommendations and funding requests based on the results at their meeting next month. But for now officials think consolidating high salary positions might be worth a closer look. Steve Polzin is the vice chair of the HART board of directors.

“It’s really kind of the most senior person in various functions across the agency that would be, you know, one director of human resources, one director of procurement, etc. kind of across the organizational chart.”

A merger could cut 22 positions including one CEO. That position alone would save about $200,000 when considering both salary and benefit packages. The legislature forced the two agencies to look into consolidation at the bidding of state representative Jack Latvala. But PSTA board secretary said if PSTA and HART merge, it would require legislative action.

“PSTA and HART would create an entity that would do some or all of the operations and currently Florida law does not allow that joint operating agreement for transit projects.”

To change that would require a bill which would need a sponsor and then approval in a legislative session. Transit officials say there’s no telling when something would happen if a merger is decided on. And Polzin said there’s still a lot to consider, like how revenue from each county stays in that county.

“So, in effect they would be jointly operated, but still the resource commitment would be a local decision made locally is at least currently the thinking in terms of some of the relationships. Nobody has proposed a regional revenue stream for transit.”

Polzin said even though some positions would be cut, others might need to be created to absorb increased work loads. The preliminary study didn’t specifically look at the cost of a merger which could underscore the staff resource savings.

“So, does that mean all of a sudden half or all of the buses get repainted – the signage, the buildings, the bus shelters, the bus stops signs, etc. – get changed to this new symbol for this new regional entity, or do we do that over a decade when it comes up to the normal replacement cycle?”

Still, PSTA’s Jonson thinks a merger is worth looking into.

“Our costs are increasing faster than our revenue is increasing and we’re going to have to either have to be creative in cutting our costs, cutting our service or increasing our fees whether that be what you pay when you get on the bus or some kind of tax funding.”

PSTA board members are working on a major overhaul to the Pinellas transit system that would require an extra penny sales tax. Jonson said the board plans to ask the county commission to put a referendum on the 2014 ballot even though they’re still working out the details on what it would pay for.

“We have not completed all of the details as to what that will include except for the Alternative Analysis which is a proposed light rail going from Clearwater down to St. Petersburg through the Gateway area.”

Hillsborough County proposed a millage rate increase in 2010 that a majority of voters rejected. The lack of support is attributed by some to vague information about how the money would be used. Unlike Hillsborough County, Pinellas transit officials are putting together a marketing strategy that will brand their plans to the public. So far, PSTA board chair Jeff Danner said the plans for light rail and bus route changes have received a lot of positive feedback.

“A lot of the input has been, ‘why’d you wait this long, when are we going to go,’ things like that. I think sees a real need to offer more than one transportation option in this county.”

PSTA and HART board members will vote on final recommendations regarding a merger at their next meeting on January 14. The deadline to give the list to the state is February 1.

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