Riders wait in line to board a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Smartbus on its way to Countryside at the Park Street Station. Pinellas County Commissioners are considering a PSTA request to add a transit tax referendum to the ballet in 2014.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners will continue their discussion about a transit tax referendum for the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot at the next regular meeting on Feb. 26.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority unanimously approved asking the County Commission to place the referendum on the ballot during its Jan. 23 meeting. Four of seven county commissioners serve on the PSTA board, including Commission Chair Ken Welch and Commissioners Susan Latvala, Janet Long and Norm Roche.
Welch added the matter to the commission’s Feb. 12 agenda.
“This is just a request that I would like us to take action and place this on the next agenda, Feb. 26,” Welch said.
Welch wants commissioners to approve a “resolution of intent,” saying they will consider a future ordinance to place the referendum on the ballot.
Chief Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long said the Supervisor of Elections requires 90-day notice of items to be placed on a ballot. An ordinance that fixes the ballot language and specifies how revenue from the tax would be shared would need to be in place by early August 2014, he said.
Commissioners approved Welch’s request, 6-1. Roche voted no. Welch questioned Roche’s vote. As a member of the PSTA board, Roche voted with the majority to ask the commission for a referendum.
Roche said his role was different as a county commissioner compared to his position on the PSTA board, which justified what some might consider a mixed message. He said voting to ask was different from voting to do. Roche wants to make sure a plan is in place prior to asking citizens for money.
Commissioner John Morroni acknowledged Roche’s concerns and pointed out that the matter was controversial, having “a younger contingent that supports it (the tax) and an older contingent opposed.”
“But maybe they don’t understand,” he said.
Commissioners agreed that public education was crucial. Roche disagreed.
“We’re not in the position to convince citizens they need it (transit),” he said. “They should be demanding it from us.”
“We’re paying the sins of our fathers,” Roche added, explaining that the county had not been developed for rail.
“We need to redevelop for rail so it makes sense,” he said. “This isn’t Europe.”
Seel said the Advisory Committee for Pinellas Transit would assist with planning as well as education. ACPT includes representatives from PSTA, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, Pinellas Planning Council and Florida Department of Transportation.
Commissioner Janet Long suggested that the ACPT include a list of projects the transit tax would fund, if approved. Seel said tax money could be used for a variety of projects, including some non-transportation needs, such as the Pinellas Trail. It also could fund PSTA projects, light rail, roads and bridges.
“PSTA started this to improve the transportation system to make it affordable,” Latvala said. “Now we’re talking about peeling off a portion for trails and other projects. We’ll be in the weeds very quickly. This is for public transportation.”
Latvala said the first thing that should be funded is bus service to make sure it meets the needs of the entire county.
“It will be years before we’re done with the building process,” she said. “PSTA has spent a lot of money already and time getting consensus for a plan. I don’t want the BCC (board of county commissioners) to take over the plan as ours.”
Welch said the ACPT should take all the plans and recommendations and bring them together. Seel agreed saying everything should be brought “to the table in a collaborative manner.”
Phil Compton, regional representative for the Sierra Club, said the Sierra Club supports a transit tax.
“It’s time to move forward,” he said. “People want this. They want the same choices people have elsewhere in America.”
Betsi Burgess, a resident of St. Petersburg, disagrees. She objects to adding a 1 percent sales tax to “overcome (PSTA’s) financial losses.”
“It will be collected from everyone, regardless of their ability to pay,” she said.
She argued that everyone would be paying for a transit system that is used by only 3 percent. She also said that the tax would bring in $130 million annually, which she said is too much. She said the agency receives $30 million now through ad valorem (property) tax and questions why so much more money is needed. She asked if the referendum would define how the money would be spent.
“No doubt this is going to be a big issue,” Roche said.
Roche opposes a “$100 million ask without a plan” and suggested that action be taken cautiously. Welch argued that a base plan already existed, Pinellas on Track (pinellasontrack.com).
“There’s definitely a plan out there,” he said.
However, Seel also admitted reluctance to hold the referendum in 2014. She prefers to wait until a better plan is available.
“Let ACPT flesh it out,” she said. “I don’t believe the timing is right. I think we should wait for 2015.”
Long and Commissioner Charlie Justice said they support putting the vote before the public in 2014.
“When is the timing going to be better,” Long asked. “It’s our obligation to let citizens weigh in. … It’s time to have the courage to move it forward.”
“I support moving forward,” Justice said. “You can drive yourself crazy trying to predict the right time.”
He added that he would like to see a “full presentation in this chamber. It’s worth a day of our time to go through this.”
Morroni expressed concern about public education for a tax increase from 7 percent to 8 percent. He said people needed to understand what the money would fund and why it was needed.
“If we don’t do our homework and community outreach, this thing will go down the tubes if we do it too early,” he said.
Latvala reminded everyone that the vote on Feb. 26 was only a show of support to consider a referendum ordinance in August of 2014.
“PSTA wants to know if the BCC will move forward before spending more money or time,” Latvala said. “This is part of the process. The plan will be tweaked before November of 2014.”
Welch agreed that the commission’s action was part of the process and said that numerous meetings had happened and would continue “to bring it all together into one plan by the ACPT.”
“We’ve studied this for 30 years,” Welch said. “It’s time to let the public decide their future.”
Commissioner Janet Long currently serves on the PSTA Board. Commissioner Karen Seel's appointment ended Jan. 1, 2013.