CLEARWATER — Saying they have a duty to inform the public, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board members Wednesday agreed to spend an extra $250,000 on an information campaign for the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan.
In all, the agency now has earmarked $400,000 from its 2014 budget to detail its proposal to raise sales tax by one penny to pay for expanded bus service, bus rapid transit and a 24-mile light-rail network between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The agency also spent $400,000 on an Greenlight outreach campaign aimed mainly at community groups and civic leaders in 2013.
Critics of Greenlight say the campaign is a waste of tax dollars and the agency is skirting a state law that prohibits tax dollars being used to sway how residents vote.
Agency leaders counter that they are helping voters make an informed decision in the November referendum. The campaign will stick to factual information, they said. “The goal is to tell the public, through PSTA, what Greenlight is,” said Ken Welch, a Pinellas County commissioner and chairman of the PSTA governing board.
But the board’s willingness to spend more also reflects concern that even after the high-profile 2013 campaign, many Pinellas residents are confused or still unaware of the $2.2 billion, 10-year project to create a mass-transit network in Florida’s most densely populated county.
Community meetings to discuss the plan have been sparsely attended, said PSTA Board Member Joseph Barkley, a Belleair Bluffs city commissioner.
Residents also are confused about why the agency currently funded by property taxes will get sales tax revenue, said Michael Smith, a board member and Largo city commissioner.
If approved by voters, PSTA’s $30 million in annual revenue from property taxes would be replaced with a new sales tax, which would bring in about $130 million a year.
PSTA leaders say at least one third of sales tax is paid by tourists. According to their figures, a family of four with an average income living in a home valued at about $250,000 would end up paying about $120 per year in sales tax, roughly the same as their current PSTA property tax.
If the referendum does not pass, PSTA would continue to be funded by property taxes but would slash existing bus services by roughly 30 percent as operating shortfall has been made up by reserve funds in recent years.
Those cuts need to be highlighted in PSTA’s campaign so voters know what is at stake, said St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, who also serves on PSTA’s board.
“They need to know doing nothing is not an option,” Newton said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that.”
The agency’s campaign likely will include direct mail and advertisements in local newspapers and on news websites, said Cassandra Borchers, PSTA chief development officer.
The agency also is planning brochures and fact sheets, and the Greenlight Academy, a classroom-like setting for residents who want an in-depth explanation of the plan from PSTA staff.
No Tax for Tracks, the group opposed to Greenlight, said PSTA will fritter away $800,000 over two years on a campaign that voters will reject.
“You are close to $1 million that you have spent,” said Tom Rask, an activist and group member. “Once people understand the Greenlight plan, they don’t like it.”