Before the 2010 elections, politicians in Hillsborough County were discussing plans for a light rail transit system. To pay for the project, they voted to have a referendum on the ballot for the citizens to vote on increasing the sales tax from seven to eight percent, a fourteen percent increase. Between the politicians, bankers, businessmen, and local press, an extremely persuasive and heavily moneyed organization was formed called Moving Hillsborough Forward. It re-grouped and became Tampa Bay On Track, and is now known as Connect Tampa Bay.
The emergence of the tea party movement a couple of years before brought together a strong group of fiscal conservatives, tired of seeing their tax dollars wasted on bank bailouts, politicians picking winners and losers, and the leaders of Tampa and Hillsborough County pushing the next greatest city in America, which would be Tampa if we could just get a light rail transit system. After all: Charlotte, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon all had light rail, and what a tremendous success they have been! At least that is what we were told.
A handful of determined citizens mounted an anti-rail campaign, No Tax For Tracks, and engaged these politicians and pro-rail activists. Tirelessly they attended meeting after meeting gathering information on the rail proposal and speaking out, participating in forums and appearing on radio shows, asking for details, costs, analysis, where it would go, whose private properties would be “taken”, etc. These details were not forthcoming, nor would they be even up to the election in November 2010.
As a result of this small group of citizens, the sales tax increase for light rail and transportation was voted down overwhelmingly by the county residents, although if one looks at the voters living within the city of Tampa the vote was supportive of a tax increase.
Here we are in 2013, and despite the resounding vote against light right and a sales tax increase, the politicians are re-grouping and have decided to try again. Perhaps they did not frame the argument properly. Perhaps they did not provide enough details and information.
The state legislature got into the game, and last year Senator Jack Latvala managed to pass Florida House Bill 599, requiring Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to study the possibility of a merger of the two entities. The state provided no money to perform this study, which required fifty thousand dollars from each of the agencies. After several meetings and careful consideration of the study, the HART board issued the following statement as its formal decision “The HART Board would not support any change in governance of the agency or repeal of its charter that was not approved by voter referendum. The HART Board believes this to be a responsible position. HART enthusiastically supports ways, as recommended by in the study, to strengthen the already robust coordination between the two agencies.”
While PSTA appears more receptive to a merger, the only way this could be achieved would be through a voter referendum. What are the legislators to do? They have hired consultants and attorneys to help develop a plan to avoid the required voter referendum. In the video in this article we see Brad Parker, CEO of PSTA, speaking with Senator Jack Latvala, Ronnie Duncan of TBARTA, and HART board member Dr. Steve Polzin, where he is explaining that they could form a Joint Powers Authority.
How would this work? PSTA and HART would remain separate entities, since they have the taxing authority as established in the legislature. Brad Miller said this would mean that HART and PSTA would exist on paper only, but would have no real power or decision-making ability over how transit dollars are spent for their respective counties. A Joint Powers Authority could be established through the Florida Legislature.
All staff, assets and funding would be allocated or dedicated to the JPA. The JPA is where all the action would be. PSTA and HART boards would not meet and not really have any responsibilities going forward. The PSTA and HART would go away except for their legal responsibility.
Every resident of Hillsborough and Pinellas County should be offended and incensed that these “servants of the people” are using your tax dollars to figure out how to avoid your vote on these matters that affect your pocketbook in a very meaningful way. We all pay into these transit authorities through our property taxes. In addition to what we already pay, an increase in the sales tax would result in an increase of everything we purchase and consume. Every small business will be affected, as commercial rents require sales taxes to be paid.
Two years ago, Moving Hillsborough Forward mounted a million dollar campaign in support of the light rail sales tax increase. In addition, the local papers, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of free advertising as it published article after article in support of rail. There were days when there were two articles supporting rail on the front page of the paper! Opposing letters to the editor were rarely printed.
The offense will be stronger and harder this time in support of rail. Residents of Hillsborough and Pinellas County must inform themselves on the expense of light rail and the minimal effects it has on traffic congestion. For previous rail articles click on the transportation link on my website.
The anti-rail campaign is gearing up again, with the same handful of concerned citizens attempting to get the facts out there so that voters can make an informed decision. Attend the meetings and give a public statement. They intend to put a sales tax increase referendum on the primary ballot in 2014. Again, this is an affront to the citizens, as they know very well that primary voter attendance is extremely low compared to the attendance for a general election. The commissioners can also bypass the citizens and raise the gas tax and/or your property taxes for light rail. That has not been taken off the table.
The anti-rail group is going to need money and support to fight this. Future articles will provide links and contacts for you to donate and get involved.