CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve an interlocal agreement with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to govern the use of a 1 percent transit surtax should voters approve it during the November election.
Legal teams from the county and PSTA have spent months hashing out the details of the agreement ahead of the Nov. 4 referendum. Approval of the 1 percent tax levy would provide a funding source for countywide transportation projects outlined in the Greenlight Pinellas plan. The plan includes an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours and local passenger rail and regional connections.
The next step is approval by the PSTA board.
The interlocal agreement gives the county the authority to withhold distribution of the surtax proceeds and/or reduce the surtax levy if PSTA exercises its ad valorem taxing authority. It allows PSTA to pledge surtax proceeds against any debt or other obligation incurred by PSTA for the Greenlight plan.
It allows the county to reduce or terminate the surtax if certain defined events occur. It requires consent from the county to undertake defined activities and provides reimbursement to the county for costs paid in support of the plan.
Commissioner Norm Roche voted against the agreement.
“I’m concerned about not eliminating the ad valorem,” he said, calling it a “red flag.”
He also is concerned about responsibility versus liability, saying the county as the taxing authority could be liable for bonds issued on behalf of Greenlight projects if PSTA is dissolved at any point in the future.
“The interlocal doesn’t give back confidence,” he said.
Thomas Rask, who is running for a seat on the county commission, also said the agreement did not protect the taxpayers against double taxation because PSTA could reintroduce the ad valorem tax.
“It’s a very strong agreement,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “It does assure that the ad valorem will go away. We’ll be able to repeal the whole tax. It is really very strong.”
The interlocal states that if the state legislature votes to change PSTA’s Special Act to eliminate its authority to levy the ad valorem tax, sections pertaining to withholding or reducing surtax money would no longer be in force.
Welch pointed out that even Gov. Rick Scott is now supporting transit and rail. He said he believed the legislative delegation also would support it now.
“Every part of the state is moving forward (with transit),” he said.
Welch said the interlocal agreement was something “to be proud of.” Commission Chair Karen Seel agreed.
“This agreement is very unusual in the state of Florida,” she said. “We did it to be accountable to our citizens.”
The interlocal sets forth a schedule of milestones, which includes such items as expansion of night and weekend bus service and the start of paperwork for Phase 1 of bus rapid service by the end of calendar year 2016.
By 2017, purchases of standard and coach buses take place to increase frequency of service and completion of capital purchases and installation of equipment for bus rapid service. Similar milestones continue through the year 2024 with the opening of light rail transit.
The interlocal calls for a review after the 50th anniversary of the surtax and each 20th anniversary thereafter. It provides the county with the authority to reduce or terminate the surtax when all projects are complete and debt is retired. The tax also could be reduced or eliminated if PSTA decides to discontinue projects, defaults on payments under a trust agreement, or uses proceeds for something other than the Greenlight plan.
PSTA must seek the county’s permission to make any substantial amendment to the Greenlight plan, to enter into any partnership that is materially adverse to the county’s interests, to amend debt and investment policies or the trust agreement.
Commissioner John Morroni said Congressman David Jolly, who doesn’t favor the tax, has said if voters approve it, he will do all he can to support local transit. Commissioner Susan Latvala said the local legislative delegation also would “be on board” if voters say yes.
“We have years invested in this moving into the 21st Century,” she said.
“Really, this about leadership and having a vision about what the county will look like in 20 or 30 years,” said Commissioner Janet Long. “This is not for us. It’s for our kids and our grandkids.”