Pinellas County Commissioners took the next step Tuesday to ensure there is a public vote on a sales tax increase in November 2014 that would go toward Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority improvements.
By voting 6-1 Tuesday, commissioners cleared the way to decide at their Feb. 26 meeting whether or not to place the proposed sales tax increase on the 2014 ballot. The vote, however, is a mere placeholder until an ordinance is drafted for the PSTA sales tax referendum.
"For more than 30 years, we having been talking about transit," said commissioner Janet Long. "We have never gotten as far as we are right now. I my mind, it’s time to move forward. Our citizens deserve better and our kids deserve better."
The tax can be up to one percent, and according to chief assistant county attorney Dennis Long, there is no limit on the duration of the new tax. That means the tax can be levied until repealed.
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Commissioner Norm Roche, who voted yes on the tax as a member of the PSTA board, voted against the item on Tuesday.
"This is no doubt going to be a huge issue going forward," Roche said.
He cautioned spending $100 million on transit improvements would be similar to the current situation with the Tampa Bay Rays. Roche, who voted against the measure Tuesday, said there is no way $100 million would be the final cost.
"This county has spent millions of dollars over the past decades on rail studies, transportation studies ... Every study has shown it's not pragmatic," Roche said.
"I don't think we're ready for this," Roche added. "I don't think we should move forward on a $100 million ask when we have not even seen how it would be spent."
Commissioner Karen Seel voted to move forward Tuesday but said her preference is to not have in on the November 2014 ballot, but in 2015 or later.
"The ask today is to let the (Advisory Committee for Pinellas Transportation) to have this authority and come up with the ballot language and the ask," said commissioner Susan Latvala. "Do we support that? That’s what you need to vote on today."
On Feb. 8, PSTA Board President Jeff Danner wrote to county commission chair Ken Welch and the rest of the commission:
"As vice chair of PSTA, you know that the PSTA board voted 15-0 unanimously to make this request to the county at our January 23, 2013 board meeting. More than 140 members of the public attended the meeting with an overwhelming majority of the public comments supporting moving forward with this referendum.
"... With the unanimous 15-0 vote, the PSTA Board strongly determined that our community needs a better mass transit system with improved bus services that are faster, more frequent, and serve the entire county including tourists, students and seniors. We also believe we need a modern 21st Century system that builds a network of transit services including bus, BRT, and in the future, rail services in the county, all in support of the Pinellas County economy."
Danner, who is also a St. Pete city council member, told commissioners Tuesday that if the plan is not ready or "not fully vetted," the PSTA would be the first group to come to the commission and ask for a delay of the referendum.
Duval, Miami-Dade and Walton counties currently levy a transit tax of .5 percent, according to county documents.
The Pinellas Supervisor of Elections needs 90 days to get the referendum language on the ballot, which means the county has until early August 2014 to officially approve of the plan.