BELLEAIR BEACH – A group urging defeat of a proposed penny sales tax increase to fund rail transit and an improved bus system in Pinellas County presented their case at the March 3 Belleair Beach City Council meeting. A referendum vote on the issue, called Greenlight Pinellas, will be held this November.
“No Tax for Tracks” spokeswoman Barb Haselden said if the referendum passes, the county sales tax will increase by 14 percent, from 7 percent to 8 percent, and will be the highest sales tax in the state of Florida. The PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) bus system currently receives about $32 million a year in property taxes, Haselden said. Under the sales tax proposal, their revenue would increase to $130 million a year, hardly the “tax swap” that PSTA claims, she said.
Haselden said PSTA spending has continued to rise while ridership has leveled out. Citing PSTA figures, she said five local routes account for 46 percent of the system ridership and the trolley another 13 percent. The majority of the system’s routes have low ridership, “yet PSTA wants more bus routes, longer operating hours, higher frequency and a rail line,” she said.
“Have you noticed there’s a lot of empty buses around all day long?” Haselden said.
If the referendum passes, Haselden said the Greenlight Pinellas plan calls for BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) with lanes set aside for buses only on the heavily trafficked roads such as Ulmerton, U.S. 19, Fourth Avenue and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. That would reduce lanes for motorists and further increase traffic congestion, she contends.
The proposed rail line “snakes through Pinellas County” from St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater and would not reach Tampa, she said.
Haselden concluded the Greenlight Pinellas transit initiative “is just not needed.”
A recently approved I-275 connector would allow motorists to go from South Pinellas to Countryside without a stoplight, she said, and will be constructed with no tax increases.
Haselden said the bus system can be saved for the 1.6 percent of county residents who depend on public transportation with “a 30 percent cut in budget, staff and low performing routes.”
City Attorney Paul Marino questioned PSTA’s use of taxpayer money to fund promotion for Greenlight Pinellas. That is an issue, Haselden replied. But she said her group has only about $27,000 to spend on the campaign versus PSTA’s millions and “we can’t afford a court challenge.”
Council Member Jeril Cohen asked what the city could do to get the No Tax for Tracks message out to the residents. City Manager Nancy Gonzales said the council meetings are televised on BrightHouse cable and also are available on the city’s website at www.cityofbelleairbeach.com.
Rental of the Community Center, primarily for weddings, should become more attractive with changes made to the rental fees and payment methods, City Manager Nancy Gonzales said. The changes are intended to make renting the center more user friendly and competitive with other such facilities in the area, and hopefully reverse a decline in its use, she said.
The rental fees for nonresidents were increased last June to $800 for four hours, plus $200 for each additional hour. In the nine months since the fee hike, bookings of the community center have fallen to 6, versus 22 for a similar period the previous year, Gonzalez said.
The new rate schedule being implemented now changes the nonresident fee to a flat $1,800 for an entire day (7 a.m. to midnight). That is competitive with similar venues offered by other communities and eliminates time constraints and extra charges, Gonzalez said. Belleair Beach residents can rent the facility for $450 a day.
Billing by credit card (except American Express) will now be accepted and can be done online.
Gonzalez said she is hopeful the new fee schedule and payment options will “push up bookings significantly this year.”
“It’s a great venue, on the water,” Attorney Marino added.
Council approved the new Community Center rental terms in a 7-0 vote.