Pinellas will have transit tax referrendum on 2014 ballot - where will those funds go?

02/27/13 Janelle Irwin
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Despite push-back from more than a dozen tea party activists, five Pinellas County commissioners said it was time to get moving on transit. At a meeting Tuesday in Clearwater, commissioners approved a 2014 ballot measure asking for an up to one cent sales tax increase to fund transportation. During a follow-up Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board meeting Wednesday, transit officials started talking about how to allocate the money if voters approve the referendum.

“The transit improvements that are called out in the studies – in the Alternatives Analysis study – need to use the full penny and other types of projects like bike trail improvements or other types of roadway.”

That’s PSTA CEO Brad Miller.

“Other types of transportation projects could still be done, but they would take away from either the bus or the rail improvements that are listed in there.”

The baseline funding plan designates $128 million in assumed annual sales tax revenue to expand the county’s bus service and build and operate light rail connecting downtown St. Petersburg to Clearwater. The rail plan would cost almost $100 million to build and another $30 million in recurring annual operational expenses. Of those costs, the transit agency would pay for more than half with the rest being covered by various federal grants and other revenue sources.

“This is only one part of the overall plan that we intend to bring to the voters in 2014, so we want to make it the best plan possible and so we want to look at other possible projects. Really it was just, sort of, a number crunching analysis so people can understand where we’re starting from and that we do have a financial plan that is balanced on how this would work and we’re just going to try to refine it over the next several months.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche was the only board member to vote against the referendum. Roche, who also sits on the PSTA board, has called the measure hasty because he claims there isn’t enough information.

"And that's what disturbs me the most is that we're still not here with those details and data and the fiscal realities of today, in my opinion, dictate that we need those details and data before we take action even to put it on an agenda - I want to do it with confidence."

But PSTA’s Miller rejects that argument.

"Because there is an incredibly detailed plan. The Alternatives Analysis, which is done, approved by the federal government and sort of in the books, is more than 2,000 pages long and it goes into great detail and that is just the latest study. Pinellas County has been doing these plans and there's - my office, or the walls are full of other studies over the last thirty years and a lot of those show the same demand for transit as this one."

Twenty-six transit advocates at the Pinellas County Commission’s meeting Tuesday spoke in favor of putting the question of funding before voters next November. They wore blue ‘support transit’ stickers and some even sat with signs in their lap imploring commissioners to approve the referendum. Chuck Terzian with the group Awake Pinellas said not voting for the referendum was a vote against democracy.

During past meetings transit officials have said the agency will become insolvent by 2017 if something isn’t done to boost revenue. The proposed referendum would swap declining property tax revenue for sales tax. The swap would save property owners less than $100 a year on a $100,000 home. Tea party activist Barbara Haselden argues that’s not a swap.

Critics also say the sales tax would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes. James Lee calls himself a Florida Cracker.

But supporters disagree. They claim a third of the sales tax hike would fall on tourists. Phil Compton is a spokesperson for the Florida Sierra Club.

As talks continue, opponents who sport shirts reading “no tax for tracks” will likely be a reckoning force. Tea Partier Barbara Hazelton was one of 18 critics of the measure. Hazelton spoke on behalf of four other members of the tea party group South Pinellas 9-12. She started off agreeing with supporters of the referendum who said voters should have the chance to weigh in, but added that isn’t the case here because she doesn’t trust elected officials to be honest.

Commissioners have until August of next year to submit ballot language to the Supervisor of Elections. They can ask for up to 1 cent more in sales tax. No further discussion has been scheduled by commissioners, but PSTA is in the process of scheduling workshops with groups like the Metropolitan Planning organization.

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Ironically the Tea Party speaks as the champion of the poor and working class while liberal activists side with the business community. I'm glad you noted "the sales tax would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes." This regressive tax will actually be worse because this is planned to shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. Developers and certain property owners will benefit from train stations but no longer pay property tax for transit. It's also likely that bus service will suffer when light rail does not generate needed revenues. Southside residents need better bus service to get to work. Rail should be funded by transferring hundreds of millions of dollars from bloated road building budgets.