Outgoing Chair of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Jeff Danner tells Pinellas County Commissioners Dec. 10 that the vote for a surtax referendum is “one of the proudest things” about his term on the board.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Vivian Peters, who supports the referendum, says transportation needs to be improved in Pinellas County.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pete Franco, a member of No Tax for Tracks, opposes raising taxes to improve transportation.
CLEARWATER - The fate of the Pinellas County’s transportation system is in the hands of the voters.
Supporters of the Greenlight Pinellas plan celebrated what was touted as a “historical vote,” after Pinellas County Commissioners approved, 6-1, an ordinance to levy a 1 percent charter county and regional transportation system surtax, upon approval by the voters during a Nov. 4, 2014 referendum election.
Commissioner Norm Roche voted no.
Approval of the referendum would allow the county to use a 1 percent sales tax to pay for public transit uses, including expanded bus service, bus rapid transit, and local passenger rail service. If approved, the county would discontinue the ad valorem tax levy, which currently pays for countywide transit services.
Commissioners listened to the public speak for and against for about three hours before voting. About 55 people registered in support, 24 as opposed and two were undecided as the commission took testimony during the Dec. 11 public hearing.
No one spoke against allowing people to vote on the measure. The divide is between those in favor of the surtax and Greenlight Pinellas plan and those who prefer to leave the tax as-is and work to improve the current bus system.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Greenlight Pinellas Council, the county commission, Metropolitan Planning Organization and most local municipalities support moving forward with a plan to take Pinellas into the future.
They cite a variety of benefits: more transit choices, job creation, economic and community re-development, reduced traffic congestion, reduced pollution, increased economic competitiveness and more.
“It’s time now,” said Jeff Danner, outgoing PSTA chair and outgoing St. Petersburg Councilmember.
Due to term limits, Danner is leaving the St. Petersburg Council and his position on the PSTA and MPO.
“One of the proudest things is the vote that took place today,” he said of his time in office. “The people get to vote.”
Several elected officials spoke for the surtax and improved transportation. Members of Greenlight Pinellas, sporting shorts with the Greenlight Pinellas logo, also talked about all the reasons Commissioners should vote yes.
Support came from people from all around the county – people who are native to the county and newcomers to Pinellas. Disabled people, senior citizens, businessmen and women, college students and younger talked about what improved transportation would do for them.
Vivian Peters of Largo moved to the speaker’s podium in her powered chair.
“We need something better in this county,” she told Commissioners.
She said because the buses don’t run at night, people who work second and third shifts can’t get home. She said people can ride the trolley to the beach, but they can’t get back to the condominiums in mid-county.
She asked those who opposed the surtax to offer “a valid suggestion of how I can get around after 6 p.m. and on weekends in a wheelchair.”
Jennifer Winter, who works at the University of South Florida, is originally from Germany. She said her grandparents never learned to drive due to the transportation system in that country. She recently attended college in Gainesville. She said there was a good transportation system that ran late night.
“I’d love, love, love, love for the students here to be able to use the bus,” she said.
Students could go out and not risk DUI, she said. They could get to class on time and avoid parking issues.
Dorothy Burn has a vision problem and for the past 12 years, she has relied on public transportation. It takes her five hours on a bus to get to north county to visit her grandchildren, something she tearfully said she is getting too old to do.
“There’s so much more than providing transportation to those poor suckers who can’t afford a car,” she said.
“I think we would rue the day if we don’t move forward,” she said.
People in opposition to the surtax and Greenlight Pinellas believe the county will regret it if the referendum is approved. Several speakers from No Tax for Tracks presented reasons why residents should say no. Reasons include a PSTA report that shows only 3 percent of residents regularly use the buses, the tax increase and cost to build a rail system that doesn’t connect outside the county.
Pete Franco from South Pasadena said if the surtax were approved, Pinellas would have the highest tax in Florida. He agreed that the county needed a better bus system, not more taxes.
“Shame on you,” David McKalip of St. Petersburg said, as he spoke to the Commission about burdening the poor and middle class with an 8-cent sales tax. He said the plan would benefit only the “rich and well connected.”
He cited other municipalities with failed transit system due to cost overruns on projects. He also believes the current bus system can be fixed.
“How can we have a system so broken with a budget so large,” he said.
Deb Caso of Palm Harbor called the commission’s actions “pure corruption and tyranny.” She said the tax would destroy property values because it would make the “cost of living too high to live here.”
“Businesses would suffer. People would have less money to spend,” she said. “It is a small business killer. People will buy their cars and boats outside the county.”
Kathy Hadden of Largo questioned information from the Greenlight “scheme” that said taxes would be less with the surtax as compared to an ad valorem tax. She said she looked at her tax bills and currently pays only $19. She worries that the cost of rent on her business will go up, as well as her utility bills due to increased taxes.
“PSTA is quadrupling their funding, but we’re the ones footing the bill,” she said.
She admitted to being “jealous” of the shirts worn by Greenlight supporters. No Tax for Tracks supporters wore stickers that said stop.
Barbara Hazelton described an “ugly process that forced this (referendum) to happen.” She said officials had “engineered” Greenlight Pinellas by only allowing supporters on the Greenlight Council and its committees.
Commission Chair Ken Welch thanked all the speakers for attending the meeting but expressed concern about some of the misinformation he had heard.
“After 40 years, we finally going to get to vote on this,” he said.
He talked about the opportunity to transform the county and move forward toward the future with smart growth.
“The vote of the people is important and it should not be withheld no matter what it is,” said Roche, the only commissioner in opposition.
He said it was important that transportation not become an “us against them” issue.
“We have the right to be for or against,” he said. “No side is the villain.”
He added that he did not think it was time to move forward.
“We need to answer all the questions before we vote,” he said.
“This has been a very long and deliberate process,” Commissioner Karen Seel said of the years of planning and public outreach that has gone into the Greenlight Pinellas plan.
“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” she said.