Pinellas County postpones talks about transportation tax referendum

During an April 2 work session, Commissioner Ken Welch says he doesn’t think residents have the “capacity” to consider a transportation sales tax referendum this year. He believes people are more concerned with “putting food on the table.”

CLEARWATER — After months of work on plans to spend billions of dollars to improve the county’s transportation and transit systems, everything has now come to a screeching halt.

Pinellas County commissioners agreed April 2 to table any further discussions on the matter, especially the part about holding a referendum to ask voters to approve a sales tax to help pay for the improvements.

County Administrator Barry Burton had been prepared to present the latest plans during a scheduled work session. He said staff had worked with the cities to come up with the latest plans.

“However, things have changed,” Burton said, adding that he didn’t know if the commission wanted to move forward.

He outlined two options. The first was not to move forward. The second was to continue with plans to hold a referendum. He said the commission had until Aug. 11 to remove it from the November ballot.

“At this moment in time, it would be really inappropriate to move forward with this issue,” said Commissioner Janet Long.

Long said she was more concerned about being able to provide for essential services as the coronavirus continues to have a huge effect on everyone’s budgets, including local government. Long said she would like to hear from the county’s Office of Management and Budget before making any plans.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said he didn’t need to hear from the budget experts to make a decision.

“This is not the time or place,” he said, agreeing with Long that priority had to go to ensuring that funds were available to take care of the county’s residents.

He suggested tabling the matter and bringing it back for discussion for the 2022 election.

“Clearly now is not the time,” he said.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked when a decision would have to be made. Burton said a public hearing would have to be held no later than May 7.

“It’s hard to believe anything in the world is going to change in that timeline,” Justice said.

Commissioner Ken Welch agreed, pointing out that ““It’s a capacity issue.”

Welch is worried that people wouldn’t have the capacity to even think about transportation improvements now.

“They’re more concerned about putting food on the table,” he said. “Kids aren’t even going back to school.”

He expressed concern about the capacity of the county’s staff that is “working 24/7 just trying to keep people safe.”

“I’d rather focus on that,” Welch said.

Welch also prefers that the county take action in collaboration with Hillsborough County, which has decided not to move forward with plans to put a transportation referendum on the ballot this year.

“I agree,” Welch said. “This is not the right time. I would not support moving forward.”

Commissioner Karen Seel also supported tabling the matter for now. She reminder fellow commissioners that she was reluctant to put a transportation surtax referendum on the ballot in 2014 because the nation was just coming out of a recession. That referendum failed.

“This is not the time to ask residents who are dealing with survival right now,” she said.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard concurred; however, she asked that staff keep on top of any federal stimulus money that might come available for transportation needs.

“Who knows what we may be able to accomplish out of adversity,” Gerard said.

Resident Tom Rask, who often opposes the county’s plans, especially those that involve taxation, was actually able to support the county’s decision for a change. He is concerned that the situation with COVID-19 is going to get worse instead of better.

“I support not going through with it (referendum),” he said. “There is evidence that mitigation is not working (for COVID-19). The situation will get worse. This is serious.”

Seel asked Burton when talks would begin about the effects of the coronavirus on next year’s budget.

“We’re already doing that,” Burton said. “It depends on how long it lasts.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.