Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pinellas County Commissioners approve transit tax measure on 2014 ballot

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 6:31 PM

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20 months.

That's how long it will be before Pinellas County voters get the chance to approve or reject a one-cent sales tax that would help fund construction of a light-rail system linking St. Petersburg and Clearwater. But the campaign begins immediately, now that the Pinellas County Commission approved by a 5-1 vote on Tuesday a measure that puts the proposed tax on the November 2014 ballot.

Those who spoke in support for the measure took up approximately an hour before the board, while those against it (including the critic who called the light rail plan "Obamacare on steroids") spoke for just half an hour.

One supporter was Lois Fry, a native New Yorker who emphasized that it wasn't just the "disadvantaged" who take the subway in her old hometown.

"If we want services we have to pay taxes for them," she told the board. "I’m happy to pay taxes for my fellow citizens can ride a bus, light rail or whatever they need to get around."

Kevin Thurman is part of the leadership of a new pro-transit group called Connect Tampa Bay. He said in the two and a half months that the organization has been around, they've already attracted 1,800 members. That's a testament, he said, to how strong the momentum is for improved transit options in the community.

Barbara Haselden represents the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots group. She blasted the fact that the Pinellas transit agency PSTA is spending $300,000 to utilize the talents of the Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker/Hall to conduct a campaign to get the measure approved next year. "How is this legal? Is this legal," she asked rhetorically.

Marge Baker said she helped with the 1996 "Eight is enough" ballot initiative that called for term limits in Pinellas, a measure that has never been enforced because of other court rulings. "They have no right to ask for this tax because they are not acceptable as our county commissioners," she said.

(The Tampa Bay Times reported on Tuesday that seven Pinellas residents, including Haselden, filed for an injunction last Friday to prevent four of the seven commissioners from voting. Those same four — Ken Welch, Susan Latvala, Karen Seel and John Morroni — are already being sued by another group who claim that they've busted term limits that were voted on in 1996 but have never been upheld in the county).

The vote was devoid of any drama, as approval was a done deal before the afternoon's session began. Commissioner Susan Latvala said the "conversation has just begun," while Commissioner John Morroni said the vote was just giving citizens the opportunity to debate the issue over the course of the next year and a half.

But the one persistent critic of the plan, Commissioner Norm Roche, disputed the notion that the vote on Tuesday was just a conversation starter, saying that it's about putting a measure on the November 2014 ballot. And if that was the case, he added, why the need to do so now? He said the deadline to put the measure on the November ballot isn't for well over another year — a point that Chairman Welch acknowledged.

Commissioner Karen Seel also voted yes, but again added her thoughts that November of 2015 would be better based on the economy being in better shape. She admitted that though the county has made "great strides" in road improvements, there was only so much that can be done with roads in an increasingly congested area.

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