Most of the transit tax dialogue has been in meetings with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). So when a measure came up today to decide whether the Pinellas County Commission would approve the tax on next November's ballot, it faced resistance — and not just from Commissioner Norm Roche, who previously criticized the initiative.
Today, Roche was the only member of the board to vote against placing a transit tax on the ballot in 2014, but commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni voiced concerns about the issue.
Last month, PSTA board members unanimously approved a resolution asking the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to put a sales tax referendum on the November 2014 ballot. Though not specified, it's expected be a one-cent tax, similar to what Hillsborough County voters rejected in 2010.
Those funds would cover part of the cost of building 24 miles of light rail from Clearwater to Downtown St. Petersburg; help beef up the bus system; and help create more pedestrian trails.
Commissioner Seel reiterated that placing a transit tax on the November 2014 ballot, though a full 21 months away, is too soon considering the barely recovering local economy.
Recently elected Commissioner Janet Long reacted strongly to Seel's comments, saying that the public conversation about creating a mass transit system in Pinellas County has gone on for decades, and that it's time to put a measure before the voters.
"It's so comfortable to say the time isn't right. When is the time going to be right?" Long asked somewhat indignantly. "We're not mind readers."
Commissioner Charlie Justice agreed that now is the time to move forward, but he agreed with Commissioner Roche that a much longer and more extensive conversation about the issue should be held by the BOCC.
Commissioner Morroni admitted that he's not up-to-date with the latest news about the proposal, and he expressed concerns that most of the public probably isn't either. He predicted that lack of knowledge would doom the ballot measure to failure next year.
Such dialogue unsettled Commissioner Susan Latvala, a member of the PSTA board, who said Tuesday's vote was simply to allow PSTA to continue to educate and work for the measure's success. Assuring her colleagues that the plan would be tweaked going forward, she emphasized that "there is a plan."
Regarding Commissioner Morroni's concerns about the public being in the dark, Latvala said a public relations firm (Tucker-Hall) has been hired and has scheduled dozens of meetings to educate the public well in advance of the measure getting on the ballot.
The board members ultimately voted 6-1 to bring the measure back before them for a final vote on Feb. 26.