PSTA CEO Brad Miller shows a copy of Pinellas County’s transit plan to commissioners during the Feb. 26 meeting.
CLEARWATER – Almost twice as many supporters as opponents of a transit tax referendum showed up to speak at the Feb. 26 Pinellas County Commission meeting.
Commissioners sided 5-1 with supporters to pass a resolution of intent to move forward toward an ordinance that must be approved in August 2014 to place the matter on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot.
Commissioner Norm Roche voted no. Commissioner Charlie Justice was absent.
Seven citizens filed a lawsuit Feb. 22 in an attempt to block the vote. Before the commission began its discussion County Attorney Jim Bennett said the complaint was not scheduled to go before the judge until sometime in March.
“You’re free to vote,” he said.
About 27 people spoke in favor of the referendum, including citizens of Hillsborough County and one resident who had traveled from Brandon. Many talked about the need for improved bus service and most support light-rail. They seem convinced that improved transit is required for Pinellas and Tampa Bay to move forward. They said they were willing to pay. They said a 1-cent sales tax is a good investment in the future.
They discussed traffic gridlock, air pollution, rising cost of fuel, lack of transit choices and a need for more access by wheelchairs. They spoke on transit’s effect on economic growth, quality of life, recruiting businesses that offer high-paying jobs with benefits, the continuing brain drain as young people leave the area and a desire for a modern and more progressive Pinellas.
All were united in saying the people had a right to vote on the matter.
Cathy Harrelson, a resident of St. Petersburg since 1979, said she was speaking on behalf of her grandson and his right for a clean, healthy environment.
“I love my car,” she said. “But my mobility is his future.”
She said the commission and the community had choices to make.
“Vote to give us the right to choose,” she said. “Our children won’t stay and businesses won’t come. Vote for a decline in our area or launch a vibrant future.”
Phil Compton, regional director for the Sierra Club Florida, told commissioners there was really no choice but to approve putting the matter on the ballot.
“It’s time to take the conversation out of these halls and out into the community,” he said. “This should be up to the people.”
Barbara Haselden of St. Petersburg, one of the seven who filed the complaint asking for an emergency injunction to prevent four commissioners from voting Feb. 26, led the way for the opposition. She said she represented herself and Pinellas 9-12, an organization of “thousands of patriots.”
She said while her group did agree with supporters who talked about a decision for the people and by the people, it did not support a referendum.
“Why we object to letting the people decide is that we’ve lost trust in the process,” Haselden said.
She pointed to deceptive messaging and the use of taxpayer money to create campaigns to convince the people of the merits of a transit tax and light-rail without funding the message of those opposed.
She said transit was not to blame for lack of jobs.
“It is not a transit or light rail issue. It is the economy, and bureaucrats’ spending money on boondoggles and entitlements,” she said.
She pointed to a recent bus study that showed five Pinellas Suncoast Transit routes and the trolley routes carried the bulk of riders. She advised officials to cut other routes and move the resources to those most used. She disputed recent ridership numbers, saying the numbers were skewed.
Many of the 14 that spoke in opposition asked to see statistics that show a need for transit changes. They objected to approving a 1 percent tax increase without knowing actual costs.
“You’re asking to vote on something we don’t know what we’re voting on,” said John Burgess of St. Petersburg.
Opponents want additional public forums and a look at other alternatives. Some said they don’t mind bus improvements, but stand firmly against rail. Most objected to the financial burden an additional tax would put on low-income residents and seniors. They asked the commission to delay the vote until more was certain.
When the public was done, Commission Chair Ken Welch said, “It’s time for the community to decide. For the record I’m in support.”
He told those who said officials have no transit plans that they were wrong.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We have a very detailed plan – Pinellas on Track – and if we approve this, more planning will continue.”
He explained that an 18-month effort involving public input had resulted in the Pinellas County transit alternatives study, a 2,000-page document available online for all to see. Visit pinellasontrack.com.
“This is the first step in a very long process,” he said. “This is not all about rail.”
He said it wasn’t feasible to continue funding transit with ad valorem taxes and to do so would erode PSTA’s reserve funds.
“It is not about the merits or faults of the alternative analysis,” said Commissioner John Morroni. “It is about giving people an opportunity to have a say. People are talking about it. Why slow it down. Just let people vote on it.”
Commissioner Karen Seel, who had expressed reluctance to support a 2014 referendum, saying she preferred to wait until 2015, agreed with the majority.
“Anyone who knows me knows transportation is what I majored in since coming on the commission,” she said.
Seel reviewed a number of road projects and improvements done over the years or are still in process.
“It is time to look to our future. We’re 96 percent built out, more roads is not logical,” she said.
Roche objected to comments that inferred Pinellas was not a good place to live.
“Pinellas is pretty sharp now. I don’t think we need a rail to be any sharper,” he said.
He objects to the lack of a formalized approved plan. He said he didn’t want to “vote for the money now and figure out how to spend it later.”
“This vote doesn’t start or stop the conversation,” he added.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller agreed that the plan needs more work. He said he plans to continue to reach out to the community to find out how best to meet its needs. He believes the vote on intent for a referendum has spurred conversation.
“We had 150 people at a PSTA meeting,” he said. “That’s never happened before.”