Monday, January 7, 2013

HART votes to end formal plans to merge with PSTA

Posted By on Mon, Jan 7, 2013 at 2:03 PM

Unlike most HART meetings, todays board meeting was packed with citizens
  • Unlike most HART meetings, today's board meeting was packed with citizens
From the time that Pinellas County state Sen. Jack Latvala addressed the Hillsborough County Regional Transit Authority (HART) board in September of 2010 to advocate a possible merger with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), the majority of HART board members have reacted coldly to such a possibility.

But since last winter, they've had little choice in the matter when a Latvala-sponsored bill passed in the Legislature authorized that both agencies pay for such a study. This past fall the two agencies held meetings on the issue, amid a consultant's study that showed there could be an estimated $2.4 million a year in savings from a merger.

On Dec. 10 in St. Petersburg, both agencies agreed to authorize a second "desk audit" to review the possibilities of consolidation.

But a week later, a HART subcommittee rescinded that vote, and today the entire board (with three exceptions) affirmed their opposition to killing that audit, though they did agree to a strategic coordinated plan for both agencies to continue to meet and find ways to cut costs beginning this May.

The board also voted unanimously, agreeing to oppose any request by the Florida Legislature that called on them to merge with PSTA as a Joint Powers Agency that would prevent local voters from approving any merger, or "Joint Powers Agreement."

HART board member Brian Crino said the entire idea promulgated by Latvala has been "ill-conceived."

Another board member, John Melendez, accused Latvala of having a political agenda that he wants to advance.

"I don't need an overzealous politician to tell me as a board member here what we need to do at a cost of $100,000 to the taxpayers and increased meetings that I have to attend," Melendez said. (The $100,000 refers to the costs both agencies had to pay for a consultant's study.)

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe was one of the three board members to oppose rescinding the desk audit. He said he was wary of how the press would react (the Tampa Bay Times editorial page has been withering in its denunciation of HART's stance against a merger). He also disagreed that the idea was a bad one.

"When have government officials ever wanted to talk about consolidating anything?" he asked.

However Sharpe agreed with board officials who took exception to PSTA director Brad Miller's remarks about how a Joint Powers Agreement could circumvent a public vote.

"I think it was a poor choice of words," Sharpe said.

The Vice Chair of the HART board, Dr. Steven Polzin from USF, said that a desk audit distracts HART from its mission of serving its riders. He also questioned the motives of Sen. Latvala, asking why the Legislature wasn't looking at merging Tri-Rail with other agencies in Broward County, for example? He added that he's always been skeptical about the potential cost savings of such a consolidation.

Unlike most HART meetings, the small conference room in the agency's Ybor City headquarters was packed with members of the public. Of the approximately two dozen citizens in attendance — who appeared to be there because of the issue — 10 of them spoke up.

Apollo Beach resident Kenneth Roberts said he was from a group called Tampa Bay Citizens for Sound Transportation. He said now was not the time for such a consolidation, and it wouldn't benefit Hillsborough County.

Valrico resident Kathy Brown said that "government works best that works least," and that she didn't want to pay taxes to help transit options in Pinellas County.

There were a few residents from Pinellas who crossed the bridge to reflect their opposition, some of whom previously expressed their disdain with Pinellas County moving toward its own ballot referendum on light rail in 2014.

In addition to Mark Sharpe, the other board members who opposed rescinding the vote for a desk audit included Temple Terrace representative Eddie Vance and Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman.

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