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Governor vetoes PSTA tax swap bill
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Riders of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses are in line for a longer wait to see improvements to the system. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill April 8 that would have allowed PSTA officials to explore alternative funding methods.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill April 6 that would have allowed Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to look for alternative ways to fund its operations besides collection of property tax.

Scott listed three objections in a veto letter.

He wrote that the bill would require PSTA to stop collecting its ad valorem tax revenue if county voters approved a 1 percent Charter County and Regional Systems Surtax.

If the taxpayers approve the sales tax surcharge, PSTA has the ability to cease collection of the ad valorem and prevent “double taxation” without the mandatory language of the bill, the letter continued.

“The bill also provides an opportunity for proponents of the sales tax to use the legislation to build support for approval of a local referendum. Promoting the sales tax in place of property tax as ‘a swap’ will result in a large overall tax increase in the county,” Scott said.

County officials have said for some time that property taxes can’t pay for the county’s transit needs. PSTA officials were happy to receive support from the legislature.

“We are optimistic that the legislature's passage of the tax swap measure will allow PSTA to change its primary funding source and significantly improve transit service in our community,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said after House Bill 865 was passed by the legislature in March.

Miller released a statement April 9 in reaction to the governor’s veto.

“PSTA is committed to our dual mission of operating and Improving a successful transportation system while always responsibly managing the public investment that supports the system,” Miller said. “The tax swap bill was a legislative initiative that we believed would have given PSTA an option to effectively manage that public investment. While the Governor disagreed, PSTA will remain focused on doing our job: to manage a successful system for Pinellas County while continuing to explore all transportation investment options.”

Opponents of the surtax most likely are pleased by Scott’s move.

David McKalip of St. Petersburg told Pinellas County Commissioners March 27 that residents don’t want to pay a penny tax for light rail. He said the tax swap would mean PSTA would collect about $120 million a year compared to the $30 million it receives now. He said PSTA had a history of wasting money.

“We don’t need light rail or rapid response buses,” he said. “We need a good bus system.”

He said rail systems throughout the country had low ridership and were not successful. He said any change in funding for PSTA should be cost neutral to provide the same level of funding.

“It doesn’t help the poor to put another penny tax,” he said. “It takes the money out of the economy.”

About a dozen speakers spoke before the commission voicing opposition to plans for light rail in Pinellas and the tax swap for a variety of reasons. One was the cost.

“This is too much burden to put on our grandchildren,” said Connie Fitzgerald.

Betsy Burgess said not enough people used the buses to justify more funding. She said even at peak times, many ran with few or no riders.

“When I’m out protesting (light rail), I see a lot of buses,” she said.

Opponents say only 3 percent of the county’s population ride the bus.

Bob Lasher, manager of PSTA Community Relations, said in an April 6 email that 3 percent is a conservative estimate based on regular daily riders. He said PSTA studies show that 36 percent of county residents have used PSTA.

“What's more, after three years of service reductions and all-time (4 consecutive months) record ridership, our undersized agency is actually running into capacity issues on many routes, especially during rush hour,” Lasher said. “We even have several that are standing room only at lunch.”

Only two people spoke in support of light rail and a new tax. David Babb of Seminole said he came from school at Gainesville to tell commissioners his vision for the county’s future.

“Cars are not the choice, or suburbs or interstates,” he said.

He talked about the county’s growth, saying, “Density does not have to be congestion.”

Light rail would mean fewer cars on the roads. He said a plan for the future needed to include the ability to walk and bike to destinations.

He said senior citizens should want an improved transit system.

“When you’re 92 and can’t drive, you’ll be dependent on the bus system,” he said. “You won’t like it when it takes two hours to get where you’re going.”

He also said Florida has the lowest tax rate in the union.

“We can afford to pay more tax,” he said.

According to 2009 figures from the National Transit Database, Pinellas County spends less than the average of service areas with a population between 500,000 to 1 million residents. The average is $99.77 per capita. PSTA spends $62.58.

To people like Tony Caso of Palm Harbor comparisons against other places makes no difference. He objects to the county’s involvement with the regional transit authority. He said decisions should be made locally, not regionally.

“We don’t want big government,” he told commissioners. “We don’t want rail.”

Revised to include statement from PSTA CEO Brad Miller.
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