Pinellas County Assistant Attorney Dennis Long and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s attorney Alan Zimmet debate the meaning of the language contained in an ordinance supporting a transit surtax referendum during a Dec. 3 work session.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners and officials with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority continued working through their differences during a Dec. 3 work session.
Consensus on final changes allows the county attorney’s office time to revise an ordinance that supports a 2014 referendum before the Dec. 10 public hearing.
Commissioners are expected to approve the ballot language and ordinance. The majority of commissioners have expressed support during recent meetings with only Commissioner Norm Roche in opposition.
Approval would allow county residents to vote on changing how PSTA is funded. The choice is to continue using revenue from ad valorem taxes or switch to charging a transit surtax of 1 percent, raising the county’s sales tax from 7 cents to 8 cents.
At a prior work session on Nov. 19, the commission and PSTA came to agreement on the ballot language and commissioners agreed with PSTA that the best method for repeal of the surtax, should it be approved by the voters, would be by referendum. A draft ordinance by the county attorney’s office called for a repeal by approval of an ordinance by the county commission.
During the Dec. 2 meeting, Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett said PSTA had requested adding “findings of fact” to the ordinance.
“It’s not a legal necessity,” he said. “It is further basis of public purpose (for the surtax).”
PSTA CEO Brad Miller said the Greenlight Pinellas Plan justified adding the “findings” due to “dozens of public purposes,” including creation of jobs, improving the community, increasing transit choices, improving the environment and adding financial equity.
Greenlight Pinellas refers to the plan for improving Pinellas County transportation system if the referendum passes.
Miller said many people who own their own homes would pay less to support public transportation with the surtax. He said estimates showed that the 5 million tourists who visit Pinellas each year would contribute to about one-third of projected tax revenue. He also pointed out that with the surtax the entire county would pay the cost of the countywide service – not just some property owners, as the funding method exists today.
The commission agreed 5-1 to include PSTA’s findings of fact. Roche voted no. Commission Vice-chair Karen Seel was absent.
PSTA also took exception with a section of the draft ordinance, which was revised after the Nov. 19 meeting, that called for the commission to approve issuance of bonds that would be guaranteed with transit surtax revenue. Bennett said the language in the ordinance was consistent with past practices for third party bonding of tax proceeds.
Alan Zimmet, who heads up PSTA’s general counsel, said the concern is that PSTA would enter into obligations and proceed with its plan. Then, over the years, each time PSTA needed to spend money, it would have to appear before a commission with changing membership for approval.
“Our concern is if we have to come back to the board to get permission to spend the surtax money, we might get in the position of not being able to pay for operations,” he said.
Zimmet explained that the commission would be asked to approve an overall financing plan. The details and actual distribution of funds would be handled via interlocal agreements.
Bennett cautioned the commission and said it would need to “really scrutinize” that overall plan if commissioners decided to go with a one-time approval versus the ability to approve each bond issue or indebtedness pledged with surtax proceeds.
“We don’t have a say in how cities bond Penny for Pinellas,” Commissioner Susan Latvala said. “All we’re doing is putting the referendum on the ballot. One-time approval is more than adequate. I see nothing but problems in the future if we (the commission) discuss each PSTA decision.”
Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long pointed out that the surtax levy could last 30 to 50 or longer years. He said PSTA was not the only entity that could pledge revenues from levy of a county tax.
“That section (of the ordinance) is not drafted just for PSTA,” he said. “And, it doesn’t provide for situations 30 to 50 years out.”
PSTA’s legal counsel and the county’s attorneys disagree on the meaning of at least one word included in the draft ordinance. Zimmet prefers that the ordinance point to a written process where specifics on bond approval are detailed.
“Down the road, the commission might micromanage PSTA,” Zimmet said.
PSTA prefers that the process be “set out so we’ll be on the same page.”
Bennett said the since the ordinance was the “underpinning for the referendum” it should include the ability to preserve the commission’s prerogative.
Commissioner John Morroni was concerned that the ordinance would tie the hands of future commissioners.
“Once the bonds are issued, the board’s hand is tied,” Bennett said.
Roche agreed with Morroni and added that if something happened to the PSTA, the responsibility to pay the debt would fall to the commission.
“We pledged 100 percent (of the surtax) to PSTA to fund Greenlight Pinellas,” Commission Chair Ken Welch said.
He recommended removing the clause that calls for the board to approve bonds and instead rely on the use of interlocal agreements. The majority agreed.
Six citizens spoke during the meeting – three for the referendum and three against.
Tom Rask shared his concern about including Greenlight Pinellas in the ballot title. He asked if Greenlight Pinellas referred to a “conversation,” as described as greenlightpinellas.com, or a plan. He asked why taxpayers would subsidize transportation for employees of beach businesses that already receive a subsidy for marketing via the bed tax.
He talked about cost overruns on other transit projects and less-than-expected ridership numbers. He said the current plan would not work.
Phil Compton with the St. Petersburg Sierra Club said opinions around the county varied about proposed changes to the transportation system and funding method. He said some people oppose the plan. Others want more information, and “a lot” support the plan.
“No one has said voters shouldn’t vote or that transportation is not important,” he said.
County commissioners will vote on the ordinance to levy a 1 percent Charter County and Regional Transportation Surtax subject to approval by voters during a Nov. 4, 2014 referendum during the public hearing segment of the Tuesday, Dec. 10, meeting, which begins at 6 p.m., in the fifth floor assembly room of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.